Bangladesh: The Journey from Genocide to Justice and Prevention

Bangladesh: The Journey from Genocide to Justice and Prevention

2nd Winter School: Genocide, Justice and the New Generation
Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice
Sponsored by the Liberation War Museum, Dhaka Bangladesh
written by Amy Fagin

At 40 thousand feet, flying from Dhaka to Dubai the Himalaya mountain range stretches from horizon to horizon, like a row of perfect white teeth in the cosmic mouth of Krishna. This parting vista seems a fitting farewell to my extraordinary journey into the educational aperture of the 2nd Winter School of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice.
40 students and professionals who represented eleven universities, and the entire geographic of the country, participated in this week long intensive located at the conference campus center Proshika HRDC Trust. Participants from the disciplines of Law, Media, History, Women and Gender Studies, Victimology, Peace and Conflict Studies and English were represented with the largest percentage reserved for legal students and professionals.

The Liberation War Museum (LWM) was founded in 1996, the same year that the Awami League (one of two largest political parties, and current governing party) returned to office. The years succeeding this victory have been tumultuous and polarizing with political and citizen demonstrations, strikes, assassinations, natural and man-made disasters along with significant achievements in democratic processes. Undeniable in its strength is a huge and irrepressible youth movement dedicated to embracing the ideals of the Liberation War, and for advancing the quality of life of the citizens of the country. The LWM’s creation of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice has harnessed this enthusiasm in the academic and professional aspirations of the country’s next generation with the lessons learned from their history of genocide, and victory of liberation.
The 2nd Winter School offered an expanded curriculum from the previous year’s focus, with certificate training for its participants. The academic objectives for the first day of the program included the concept, theories and introduction to genocide and its definition, classification and legalistic elements as applicable to the International Crimes Tribunal / Bangladesh (ICT BD).
Day two focused on the history of the genocide in Bangladesh and the justice processes that have been adopted since 1971 including the important International Crimes Tribunals Act of 1973 and the establishment of the ITC BD in 2009 and its proceedings. An introductory landscape of the chronology and geography of international episodes of genocide, presented by yours truly, opened the sessions for the day.

Impressive, compassionate and passionate presentations delivered by deeply esteemed professionals such as Supreme Court Barrister Tureen Afroz, now serving as prosecuting attorney on the ICT BD courts, provided a background in the establishment of the ICT BD. I must here give comment to the international community’s criticisms of the trial proceedings, articulated for this article by Human Rights Watch. HRW posted on November 15, 2015 quoting Brad Adams, Asia Director: “Justice and accountability for the terrible crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence are crucial, but trials need to meet international fair trial standards. Unfair trials can’t provide real justice, especially when the death penalty is imposed.” In addition Adams says: “The accused in all these cases were allowed a minuscule fraction of witnesses, counsel were regularly harassed and persecuted, defense witnesses faced physical threats, and witnesses were denied visas to enter the country to testify.”

I was asked many questions during the week from emerging legal professionals regarding these sensitive and very complicated issues. Not being a lawyer, nor deeply versed in international criminal law, or Bangladeshi criminal law, I could only offer my knowledge of capital punishment as it is practiced or abolished independently by individual state law in the USA. The complexities of these and other domestic court proceedings coping with mass atrocity crimes waged against whole populations, as well as the roles of domestic and international criminal law are, to be sure, nascent areas of study and practice world-wide. Establishing best practices in trial proceedings, whether domestic or international is only just emerging. The International Criminal Court began functioning just a little over a decade ago and is “intended to complement existing national judicial systems”. National judicial systems established, themselves, to bring their most heinous mass atrocity criminals to justice before their citizens, is also still adolescent in development. According to the International Bar Association’s evaluation of the ICT BD: “Many civil society groups, victims and their descendants have steadfastly backed the war crimes trials, which they feel are a crucial process denied them for over 40 years.” What I can say about this experience, with complete authority, is that everyone participating in this educational experiment in the study of genocide and justice were personally and professionally compassionate, honest and dedicated to upholding best practices. Each individual demonstrated an astute willingness and commitment to fair trial standards.

On day three the group explored the ongoing relationships between the ideals of international criminal law and Bangladeshi demand for justice in the aftermath of genocide with esteemed professors’ Dr. Ashfaque Hossain and Sheikh Hafizur Rahman Karzon, respectively of history and law based at the University of Dhaka. In the afternoon I had opportunity to work with the students in an interactive workshop: “Community Conversations, Global Perspectives Beyond Genocide” where we explored “Visual Thinking Strategies” to learn more about specific case studies of genocide as expressed and interpreted through art. Defining and protecting members of a human group, typologies and discussions on the legal implications of “genocide” verses “crimes against humanity” met with lively debate.

Heartfelt testimony was delivered by Julian Francis, who was working with Oxfam during the tragic days of the Liberation War in several refugee camps. The reality of the suffering of the victims’ of mass violence, that Julian portrayed, are the stories of these young adults parents’ and grandparents’, aunts’ and uncles’.
The case study of Indonesia was a focus of multi media attention with a series of presentations including two important films “The Act of Killing” and “40 Years of Silence” as well “Thinking Through Art” (shown in this picture) and an investigation of memory and memorialization with a review of the “1965 Park” project; a controversial experiment in memorialization of a mass atrocity that divided the community it was designed to honor. In the short span of time that the group had to work with the complexities of this case study a deep level of understanding was achieved by all through this multi-dimensional examination.

Day 4 covered the issues of: Socio-Legal Significance of the ICT BD Judgements, Transitional Justice Processes, and Memory, Mass Atrocity and Memorialization.
Early am on day 5 students visited the Dhamrai Killing and Battlefield where they met with Bangladesh independence fighters (known domestically as “freedom fighters”) and later delivered multi media group presentations covering this impactful investigative experience. The connection to the history of the nation was made evident and current, even if this participant could not understand Bangla.

My last day with this group was a revelation to me in learning about the impact on the lives of victims of sexual violence from this era, efforts at reparation, protection and the challenges of investigation of these crimes that carry stigma to the victim. I also had the great privilege to meet several women who represented this generation of war babies and children of victims of “intellectual killings” and realized on a visceral level the generational influence that violence has to individuals, families, communities and nations.
Upon my arrival to Dhaka the early evening hours were a cacophony of celebration of the 45th anniversary of independence. Every sidewalk was full spectrum with brilliantly dressed Bangladeshis rejoicing in their independence and honoring their war heroes.

On the road from the airport to my hotel, downtown Dhaka celebrants stretched from horizon to horizon, like living garlands of Hawaiian leis (floral necklaces for the gods and one another of love and affection.) This arrival vista seems a fitting greeting to my extraordinary journey into the blossoming of the 2nd Winter School of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice.

Joie Bangla!