Bangladesh’s emergence as a sovereign nation-state came at the expense of millions of victims who perished during the Liberation War of 1971.
From the very outset of the war, there were serious and credible concerns that egregious crimes were being committed against the Bengalis by members of the Pakistani armed forces and its local auxiliaries: the Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams, many of whom came from the Jamaat-e-Islami. In addition to the targeting of Bengalis as an ethnic group, other groups that were specifically targeted were Hindus, members of the Awami League, the Bengali intelligentsia and females from all age groups.
Correspondents of Time magazine quoted a US official admitting that what the Bengalis had endured was ‘the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland’.
The nine-month-long military campaign, which was triggered by an operation code-named Operation Searchlight, resulted in mass murder, rape, the destruction of property and an unprecedented refugee crisis which at the time led to the United Nations undertaking its largest relief program. U Thant, the then UN Secretary-General described the events as ‘one of the most tragic episodes’ and ‘a terrible blot on the page of human history’. The claim that Bangladesh paid the highest possible price for freedom with blood, as emotive as it may be, is one that is not seriously contested.
In 1971 as countless Bengalis were either tortured, raped or murdered, the global community apart from India, the Soviet Union and a few other countries watched as silent bystanders.
Another claim that is not seriously contested is that the egregious atrocities committed by the Pakistani armed forces and its proxies amounted to ‘international crimes’. Given that the nature and scale of atrocities were widely documented in testimonies of surviving victims and eye-witnesses, newspaper reports authored by foreign war correspondents, reports documenting the proceedings of legislative bodies of foreign States, and reports published by international organisations, reaching this conclusion was not a daunting intellectual task.
The first set of documents that recorded the atrocities of the Pakistan Army were a set of ‘dissenting cables’ wired by Archer Blood, the then United States Consul General based in Dhaka, to the American government.
The subject of the cable sent out on 28 March 1971 was ‘selective genocide’. The word ‘genocide’ was used again by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, Anthony Mascarenhas, Senators Edward Kennedy and Ernest Hollings and others to describe the targeted elimination of Hindus, members, and supporters of the Awami League, as well as Bengali students and academics.
As a result, it comes as no surprise that according to scholarly works, however limited, both crimes against humanity and genocide were committed against the Bengali populace in 1971. Furthermore, after the careful weighing of evidence, most of the accused before the International Crimes Tribunals of Bangladesh (ICTs) have been found guilty of crimes against humanity. Others have been found guilty of outright genocide. This is why it is a matter of intrigue and misfortune that the formal recognition of the ‘Genocide in Bangladesh’ by the international community remains elusive to this day.
In 2017, the Bangladesh Government initiated a campaign to attain international recognition of the Bangladesh genocide. On March 11, 2017 Parliamentarians of Bangladesh unanimously adopted a resolution declaring the date of ‘25th March’ as Bangladesh Genocide Memorial Day. During her speech at the 72nd session of the UNGA, Sheikh Hasina the Prime Minister of Bangladesh called for the ‘recognition of past tragedies like the 1971 genocide’ because it ‘would guide us to achieve ‘never again’’.
Representatives of the Government have made it known that in the coming days Bangladesh shall be calling upon the United Nations and foreign states to adopt resolutions recognising the atrocious crimes committed against the Bengalis in 1971 as ‘genocide’. The International Crimes Strategy Forum (ICSF), has prescribed a seven-prong strategy to the Bangladesh Government that would complement the ongoing efforts towards achieving global recognition of the Bangladesh genocide.
The process of attaining ‘recognition’ is likely to be time-consuming but possible. It was nearly a decade after the genocide in Rwanda that the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2003 designated the date of ‘7th April’ as International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.
This designation was slightly modified by the UNGA and changed to International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 2018. Bangladesh ought to remember that UN recognition of the Rwandan genocide came after the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the publication of the Final Report of the Commission of Experts established pursuant to a resolution of the UN Security Council, and, the taking of Judicial Notice in June 2006 by the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR that the ‘genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi ethnic group’ was a ‘fact of common knowledge’.
By establishing the ICTs, Bangladesh is currently fulfilling its obligations under the principle of complementarity of prosecuting the perpetrators of international crimes at the domestic level. Prior to stepping out of its comfort zone and knocking on the doors of foreign parliaments and assemblies, the Bangladesh Government should seriously consider publishing a comprehensive policy brief that convincingly substantiates the case for recognising the Bangladesh genocide.
On the other hand, it would be a pity if reminders are needed to be issued to the international community of its moral obligation to recognise the Bangladesh genocide.
In 1971 as countless Bengalis were either tortured, raped or murdered, the global community apart from India, the Soviet Union and a few other countries watched as silent bystanders. U Thant’s depiction of the events of 1971 as ‘a terrible blot on the page of human history’ was correct, but the UN’s failure in preventing or even condemning the commission of international crimes reveals that it too was going through one its darkest hours.
The 20th century was marked victims of mass atrocities in Bangladesh ‘remembering’ what Gary Bass called a forgotten genocide. We hope that in the 21st century, the global community will stand alongside the Bengalis to not just remember but also recognise the Bangladesh genocide of 1971.
M Sanjeeb Hossain is a Commonwealth Scholar at the Warwick School of Law where he recently completed his PhD. He is an Editor of Legal Issues published by the UKLSA. Bahzad Joarder is a postgraduate from the University of Birmingham specialising in International Criminal Law and History. He has written about the historical and legal scope for understanding the Liberation War in Bangladesh and the associated genocide. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.