Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy of 150 million citizens. On December 29, 2008, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, won 230 of 299 parliamentary seats in elections considered by international and domestic observers to be free and fair, albeit marked by isolated irregularities and sporadic violence. The elections and the peaceful transfer of power that followed ended two years of rule by a military-backed caretaker government. In January 2007, in the wake of violent political unrest, the president had declared a state of emergency and postponed elections that were originally scheduled for later that month. With the support of the military, the president appointed a caretaker government, which subsequently announced that elections would be held by the end of 2008 after the implementation of electoral and political reforms. Although overall levels of violence declined significantly and the caretaker government oversaw successful elections, the government's human rights record remained a matter of serious concern, in part due to the state of emergency that remained in place for most of the year and the failure to fully investigate extrajudicial killings. The government-imposed Emergency Powers Rules, in place until December 2008, curtailed or suspended many fundamental rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and the right to bail. While there was popular support for the government's anticorruption drive, it gave rise to concerns about fairness and due process under the law. Although there were fewer extrajudicial killings in 2008, there was an increase in vigilante killings, and security forces were complicit in custodial deaths, arbitrary arrest, and detention, as well as harassment of journalists. Prison conditions, trafficking in persons, labor rights, child labor, and protection for vulnerable populations, including women, children, refugees, and religious minorities, remained serious issues.

Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives

U.S. human rights and democracy goals in the country include continued and constructive participation by all parties in the political process, improved governance, and greater protection of human rights, including labor rights and freedom of the press and of religion. The United States promotes democracy and human rights by supporting democratic institutions and practices, encouraging transparency and accountability, endorsing respect for the rule of law, and seeking justice against the perpetrators of human rights abuses and political and extremist violence.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

U.S. officials routinely emphasize the importance of constructive participation in the political process through discussions with government officials, members of civil society, and the press. The United States raises concerns about human rights abuses with the government and urges the government and military to conduct transparent investigations and take appropriate actions against human rights violators. The United States has also begun to offer limited training on human rights to the Rapid Action Battalion, a paramilitary force created to combat terrorism. U.S. officials express support for freedom of the press and meet publicly and privately with journalists to lend their support and discuss concerns about censorship as they did under the state of emergency. Although journalists tell U.S. officials that official censorship has declined since the second half of 2008, many journalists practice self-censorship. U.S. officials also meet with victims of human rights abuses and intercede with the government on specific cases. In addition, U.S. officials implement and support programs aimed at enhancing the rule of law by improving the capability of law enforcement officers to properly investigate and prosecute complex financial and organized crimes and develop prosecutorial and judicial skills.

The United States supports numerous projects to promote democracy in the country and lay the foundation for constructive political engagement with the new government. The U.S. Government continues to enhance the capability of political parties and civil society leaders to participate fully in various aspects of the political process. For example, in February 2009 the United States sponsored a three-day workshop on parliamentary rules and procedures, constituent outreach, and oversight techniques for new parliamentarians. In addition, the United States supports local media to report effectively on election-related and governance issues. U.S. assistance programs also promote tolerance and diversity through civil society. One such program exposes local religious and community leaders to fundamental national development issues by engaging them in dialogue about values and practices of democracy and development. More than 5,000 leaders who have participated in the program over the last year now disseminate messages of tolerance to their local communities.

The government suspended rights of workers to assemble and unionize freely under the state of emergency but reinstated them in advance of the 2008 elections. The United States continues to engage workers, owners, and government officials on educating workers, both inside and outside export processing zones (EPZs), and on educating employers on compliance with internationally recognized labor rights and domestic labor laws. The United States provides technical assistance to enhance the capacity of EPZ and non-EPZ workers to form unions or associations. The U.S. Government also works with employers and workers to improve adherence to labor standards and to bargain together constructively.

The United States works closely with the government to develop and implement a strategy to combat trafficking in persons. U.S. officials meet periodically with the government to monitor the progress of the police unit addressing sex trafficking and work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to improve the ability of the country's consular services to aid trafficking victims stranded abroad. The United States conducts training programs on trafficking investigations for prosecutors and police officers. U.S.-supported training, provided to more than 900 lawyers and prosecutors during 2008, outlines the proper management of trafficking cases through improved victim and witness interviewing techniques and better evidence collection and presentation standards. In addition, the United States supports services providing shelter, health care, psychological counseling, and legal aid to victims of sex trafficking, the majority of whom are women. The U.S. Government also provides support to international partners for activities that assist more than 28,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma and encourages the government to cooperate in improving living conditions in refugee camps, including increasing access to education and granting permission for refugees to work.