Commonwealth Day in Bangladesh: High Commissioner's speech

To celebrate the Commonwealth Day, British High Commissioner spoke at Commonwealth Society seminar on March 10.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Commonwealth Day in Bangladesh: High Commissioner's speech

Enam A Chaurdhury, President of the Commonwealth Society of Bangladesh,

The Honourable Tofael Ahmed, Minister of Commerce,

Key note speaker Professor Selina Mohsin,

Ladies and gentlemen and members of the press.

Sala’am w’alekum and thank you for inviting me today to mark Commonwealth Day 2014.

I would like to congratulate the Commonwealth Society of Bangladesh for its untiring and dedicated efforts to uphold the spirit and values of the Commonwealth.

Without the efforts of the society it would be much harder to promote this wonderful organisation.

This year the Commonwealth Games, will be held this year in Glasgow from 23 July – 3 August. The UK looks forward to welcoming team members from the Commonwealth family, including Bangladesh, to what promises to be another magnificent event binding us together.

I had the great pleasure to welcome and issue visas this morning to some of the Bangladesh team. I wish them good luck at the Games.

The theme of the Commonwealth this year is working as a team. Teamwork is essential for the achievement of sporting goals. But sport is not the only area where team values matter.

The Commonwealth is a Team. A team of 53 independent member states. It is a team that is a purely voluntary club, bound together by shared history, deep and diverse links between our peoples and – at our best – strong common instincts and principles about the importance of open, transparent societies, democracy, rule of law and human rights.

In each member state the people and the government together make a team that makes the country. For this reason I shall focus this afternoon on the values and trust that bind us together into a team.

We have just had the honour to hear Her Majesty the Queen’s Commonwealth Day message. As Her Majesty said:

“The understanding that we belong together, and are able, through teamwork to achieve far more than we could do alone,
has always been at the heart of our approach. For all of us this is now captured in the Commonwealth Charter which sets out the values and principles which guide and motivate us.”

At CHOGM last November in Colombo, Heads of Government, including the Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, meeting as a Team, reiterated their commitment to respect, protect and promote the core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter.

The Charter sets out clearly the Commonwealth values to which all members should aspire. It includes the following:

“We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds.

“We emphasise the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom, that the respect for the dignity of all human beings. We accept that diversity and understanding the richness of our multiple identities.”

Bangladesh is a member of the Commonwealth and signed up to this Charter. I am pleased that Bangladesh prides itself on being part of a tolerant society. Pleased that Bangladesh prides itself on its diversity and respect. Pleased that Bangladesh shares the Commonwealth vision.

In my experience of living in this beautiful country on and off for thirteen years I am optimistic about the future. Future leaders tell me about their vision for the future. Their vision for the Bangladesh of tomorrow.

So the question I pose today is are there any issues where perhaps more attention could be given to ensure we reach our common goal. I could talk about the death penalty, which the UK opposes in all circumstances. I could talk about forced marriages, which are still too common here. I could talk about the high number of women who are still subject to sexual violence.

But for today I will concentrate on just three issues. Issues where perhaps more efforts could be made by all citizens as well as the government to ensure the values enshrined in the charter are respected.

The first are rights of those accused of crimes, and their rights to a fair trial and humane treatment.

I am sure that like me, everyone in this room has read about the apparent increase in the number of Extra Judicial Killings in Bangladesh.
If the numbers quoted by local human rights bodies and in the media are true, they are truly alarming and a cause for concern. I am reassured by the personal assurances given to me privately by members of the Government that these will be investigated.

Nevertheless I urge the Government to ensure these investigations are carried our quickly and transparently. And to ensure that further such abuses of the rule of law do not take place.

Secondly I would like to turn my attention to the lesbian and gay community.

Penal Code 377 criminalises same sex activity. This code remains on the books from the British colonial era. In today’s world it is an anachronism. Yet whenever I raise the rights of this community privately with the Government I am told that Bangladesh is not yet ready to address this issue.

I disagree.

Progress on Human Rights across the globe has often been hard fought and hard won. The legislation in the United Kingdom that legalised same-sex relations were not widely welcomed at the time. As indeed was earlier legislation that gave women the vote. There was huge public opposition.

But our lawmakers and our leaders recognised that this was an injustice; an injustice that had to be addressed. Parliament persevered and, although in opposition to general opinion, the bill legalising same sex relations was passed.

I admire greatly the way Bangladesh prides itself on the openness and tolerance of its society. It prides itself on the empowerment of all members of society. It prides itself on the way it has pioneered changes in the status of women. I hope that the Government of Bangladesh can take further pride by showing leadership on this issue. The repeal of the Penal Code would be a significant step to uphold the values of the Commonwealth Charter. It would reinforce Bangladesh’s international leadership on issues of tolerance and respect.

I strongly encourage them to consider this urgently.

Thirdly I want to refer to the rights of religious minorities.

I am sure we have all been shocked by the violence that has been directed against religious minorities. I welcome the Prime Minister’s assurance that the Government will ensure the security of its religious and other minorities. The attacks that have taken place recently have been distressing and unnecessary.

I call on all citizens to refrain from violence against these and all vulnerable sections of society. Singing up to Commonwealth values is not enough. They must be put into practice as well.

In the run up to last November’s CHOGM, my Foreign Secretary William Hague remarked:

“We should all, and I include the UK in this, indulge in some honest self reflection about where we, as nations, do well against the aspirations set out in the Charter, and where we could do better. And importantly, we should then take steps to address any areas in which we fall down.”

I urge the Government and the people of Bangladesh to do as we do in the UK not to be complacent, not to bury our heads in the sand. Instead to constantly and consistently consider and address any human rights violations and abuses that might occur.

I hope the Government and people of Bangladesh like the people of the UK and its Government will continue and do more to take an active and effective stand to support and promote Team Commonwealth’s Principles and Values.

Thank you.

Published 10 March 2014