On December 11, 2020, Amnesty International called on the government of Bangladesh to fully implement the human rights provisions of Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. The treaty was signed twenty- three years back on December 02, 1997 between the government of Bangladesh and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) – a political party formed to represent the people and indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.
The conflict began in the region when the political representation of the local population protested against the policies of the government identifying only the Bengali language and culture and labelling all the populace of Bangladesh as Bengali. The ethnic groups were forced to adopt only Bengali identity. So, the treaty was made keeping into consideration the reference of the UN declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Amnesty International made it clear in a meeting with the government that the organization had been closely monitoring the developments regarding the implementation of peace accord since 1997 in the backdrop of armed conflict that displaced and killed thousands of people. In 2000, the organization had voiced concerns over the slow pace of implementation. In 2013, deep concerns were further expressed regarding the economic, civil, social, political and cultural rights of the local people as well as regional autonomy in the CHT region which was remained unfulfilled even after a long time. The situation in the region remains disappointingly similar to 2013. According to the PCJSS instance, only 15 per cent of the provisions of the accord have been implemented fully while a quarter is partially implemented and require more progress. More than 50 per cent of the provisions in the Peace Accord remain unimplemented.
The CHT Accord (1997) added to clause 4 which specified that only permanent residents of the region could vote in the elections. The significance of the clause if fully enforced is to give the Jumma community an electoral majority in the region by stopping Bengali settlers or non-permanent residents from voting in the election of CHT. This would ensure tribal members to be the elected representatives in the region.
CHT Peace Accord at its very beginning assumed that Chittagong Hill Tracts are tribal occupied region, although almost 50 per cent population of the region is Bengali- speaking. CHT Bengalis were never asked while negotiating the peace accord. There is nothing in the Constitution of Bangladesh that declares CHT as a Tribal region. The claim, therefore, runs in contradiction to the Constitution of Bangladesh. Moreover, Bengali tenants have also been excluded from all privileges and voting rights which is again in violation of the Constitution which guarantees equality to all the citizens. The PCJSS also admitted that clause 4 in the CHT Accord was not in accordance with the constitution. However, they insisted that the government had to deny the status of permanent residents for non-land owing Bengalis while taking away their voting rights.
An important aspect of the accord is the formation of Parishads for each of the three districts of CHT. The Parishads have been entrusted with vast responsibilities and powers including the collection of development Tax, the appointment of three and four grade workers and recruitment of police personnel down from Sub- Inspector etc. When compared to other districts, such powers are not even specified to any local government body. Again, even after the fact that Bengalis are 50 per cent in the region, two-third of members of the Parishad will be nominated from the tribal community according to the provision of the CHT Accord. The Constitution of Bangladesh does not guarantee any specific representation to the backward sections of the country.
Special representation shall only be given to women, workers and peasants according to the constitution. So, the provision of CHT is ultra vires to the constitution as the state can only make special provisions for backward sections for securing their identity within the society but this means that the state can fix posts and quotas in the service of the country. The exclusive appointment of a particular class at a specific status and rank will seriously upset the interests of Bengalis in CHT. It will be impossible for Bengalis to purchase land in CHT settlements due to the presence of two-third of tribal members. This is again the violation of the constitution that guarantees equal rights for citizens to move freely and get settled at any place within the country. Such provision of withdrawal of allotment of lands to Bengalis seems to be a treacherous effort not only to stop settlements but to oust the Bengalis in long run from CHT region. Moreover, the Parishad will be allowed to some unspecified sections of royalty including mineral and forest resources according to another provision of the accord which further curtails the sovereignty of the constitution.
Additionally, clause Ga (13) of Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord seriously threatened the legislative powers as well as the sovereignty of the constitution. The clause claims that no law in the region can be articulated and devised by the government without keeping into consideration the Regional Council. Therefore, if implemented the legislative powers of the government would have been submitted to the Regional Council.
In a nutshell, it can be estimated that certain clauses of the CHT Accord need to be revised to make some meaningful progress. First, in the light of Article 28 clause 4 of the national constitution, the government has to propose special legislation keeping into consideration the limitations to implement and preserve the rights of indigenous people living in the region. Bangladesh is a country that has proven its generosity by offering support and shelter to more than one million displaced Rohingya refugees. Keeping in view the same spirit, the government needs to sit with the natives and consult them in the decision-making process most specifically in choices that directly affect them as it is the first and foremost responsibility of the government to protect the rights of the locals within a country.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.