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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

The Bangladesh Genocide: A Call for Recognition and Justice

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On the evening of March 13, 2024, Sadi Mohammad, an eminent Bangladeshi artist, tragically took his life at the age of 67. The renowned artist had fallen into a deep depression after the death of his mother one year prior. Following this tragic incident, discussions arose on social media questioning whether witnessing the brutal killing of his father in 1971 during his early years was linked to his depression. Is PTSI (post-traumatic stress injury) a possible factor behind this? (Halder, 2024). While there hasn't been extensive research on the psychological impact of the Bangladesh genocide on its survivors, it's evident that thousands of Bangladeshi families continue to bear the brunt of the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army in 1971. The Bangladesh genocide, which claimed three million lives, is unfortunately not widely discussed, or known in the international arena.

Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Presidency University, Kolkata, notes that the Bangladesh genocide was not included in his history syllabus at the secondary or tertiary level of education although he grew up in Kolkata which is just about 400 km away from the capital city of Bangladesh (Aafreedi, 2023). Even during his bachelor’s degree studies in medieval and modern history of India and the West at the University of Lucknow, it was not covered. This is despite India's significant role in the 1971 war, including hosting ten million refugees from Bangladesh who fled to escape the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army.

In 2021 and 2022, three United States-based organizations, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, Genocide Watch, and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, recognized the atrocities committed by the Pakistani occupation force and their allies during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971 as genocide (Noor, 2022). Genocide Watch had previously recognized the Bangladesh Genocide in detail in its Country Report on Bangladesh in 2016 and reiterated this recognition in 2021. The organization urged member states of the United Nations, especially the US, the UK, and Pakistan, to recognize the crimes committed by Pakistani Military Forces in Bangladesh as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It further demanded that surviving leaders of this genocide be prosecuted in national courts with universal jurisdiction and called for proper reparations for these crimes from Pakistan to Bangladesh. In addition, on April 24, 2023, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IASG) adopted a resolution entitled “Resolution to Declare the Crimes Committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War as Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and War Crimes” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2023).

Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, who commanded the Pakistani Eastern Command in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1971 war and signed the instrument of surrender on 16 December 1971, wrote in his book “The Betrayal of East Pakistan” that General Tikka Khan, Martial Law Administrator (MLA) and General Officer Commanding in Chief Pakistan Eastern Command known as “ Butcher of Bengal”, resorted to the “killing of civilians and a scorched-earth policy”( Niazi, 1998; Singh, 2012;  Los Angeles Time, 2002). General Tikka ordered his troops, “I want the land and not the people”. Here, we see the clear “Intention to destroy”!

On 25 March 1971, at around 11 p.m., the Pakistan military launched Operation Searchlight, targeting sleeping residents of Dhaka in a brutal onslaught (Ahmed, 2022). The objective was clear: to eradicate Bengali opposition by disarming and killing Bengali security personnel, targeting students, and intellectuals, and indiscriminately executing Bengali men and women, including workers and vendors. Dhaka quickly descended into chaos and flames as the violence escalated. This devastation wasn't confined to Dhaka alone; the Pakistani military conducted ethnic cleansing operations across Bangladesh. The violence reached its peak when death squads ravaged Dhaka's streets, claiming the lives of approximately 7,000 people in a single night. In the next nine months, three million people were killed, two lakh women were violated and 10 million people took refuge in India (Ahmed, 2022; Jahan, 2004).

Two days before surrendering, on December 14th, Pakistani military forces, along with collaborators, systematically targeted and murdered intellectuals, aiming to decimate Bangladesh's intellectual leadership (Ahmed, 2022; Jahan, 2004). Exploiting religious, social, and cultural divisions, the military orchestrated a mass rape campaign against Bengali women, seeking to dehumanize and erode Bengali identity. Additionally, there was a concerted effort to eradicate minority communities from Bangladesh during the liberation war. The enormity of the war's casualties, including the displacement of millions of Bengalis, underscores its genocidal nature.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified in 1948, defines genocide as acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, in whole or in part (Article II). The Convention also establishes a duty on State Parties to take measures to prevent and punish the crime of genocide, including by enacting relevant legislation and punishing perpetrators, "whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials, or private individuals" (Article IV). Despite these clear indications fitting the definition of genocide outlined in the convention, the UN has yet to officially recognize the atrocities as such, even after 54 years since their occurrence.

Archer K Blood, a midlevel Foreign Service officer stationed in Dhaka in 1971, sent a cable titled "Selective Genocide" to the Secretary of State, expressing horror at the reign of terror by the Pakistani military, stating, "HERE IN DACCA WE ARE MUTE AND HORRIFIED WITNESSES."(US Department of State Archive, n.d.; Barry, 2016). In the telegram's final paragraph, known as the "Blood Telegram," he wrote, "FULL HORROR OF PAK MILITARY ATROCITIES WILL COME TO LIGHT SOONER OR LATER." On 14 October 2022, a bipartisan Resolution 1430 was introduced in the US House of Representatives to formally recognize the crimes against ethnic Bengalis by the Pakistani armed forces in 1971 as "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" (Mazumder, 2022). The eight-page resolution titled "Recognizing the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971" urges the US government to acknowledge the genocide, demands Pakistan's government to apologize formally to Bangladesh and calls for the prosecution of any living perpetrators in accordance with international law.

States, international governmental organizations (IGOs), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may exhibit reluctance in recognizing genocide due to various political considerations (O'Brien, 2022). For instance, an organization may fear risking state funding or have subjective objectives that align with using the term "genocide." Additionally, advocates may be more inclined to label a situation as genocide in hopes of leveraging its power to influence policymakers. States, in particular, often hesitate to acknowledge genocide because such recognition triggers legal obligations under the Genocide Convention. These obligations, which include the responsibility to prevent and punish genocide, extend not only to the state perpetrating the genocide but to all states party to the convention, adding further complexities to diplomatic relations and international affairs.

The recognition of genocide holds significant importance for several reasons (Baghdassarian, 2022). Firstly, an official designation of genocide opens legal avenues that may have been previously closed due to the lack of such recognition. This allows for the pursuit of justice and accountability for the perpetrators of genocide, offering a form of redress to the victims and survivors. Secondly, official recognition carries tangible legal implications, enabling the application of specific legal frameworks and mechanisms aimed at preventing and punishing genocide. This includes obligations under international law, such as those outlined in the Genocide Convention, which hold states accountable for preventing and addressing genocide. Additionally, the acknowledgment of genocide adds political pressure on the international stage, signaling a collective condemnation of such atrocities and urging action to prevent future genocides. Furthermore, recognition of genocide provides a sense of catharsis and validation to the victims and survivors, affirming their dignity and acknowledging the suffering they endured. Particularly in ongoing conflicts and human rights abuses, such as those in Myanmar and Palestine today, official recognition by entities like the United States can serve as a crucial step towards addressing the atrocities and providing support to those affected.

The Bangladesh genocide case holds significant importance for understanding the complexities of genocide for several compelling reasons (Jahan, 2004). Firstly, it serves as a poignant illustration of how geopolitical interests often shape the world's response to genocide, with powerful nations choosing to either recognize or ignore atrocities based on their own national interests. Secondly, the Bangladesh case highlights the challenges in sustaining international attention on genocide cases over time. Despite receiving widespread media coverage in 1971, the issue gradually faded from global focus, leaving Bangladesh largely forgotten in the aftermath. Lastly, the Bangladesh genocide exemplifies the complexities of achieving justice and accountability for victims and perpetrators. Internal and external pressures, changes in political circumstances, and expedience can impede the pursuit of justice, as witnessed in Bangladesh. The current government of Bangladesh and civil society groups persisted in keeping the memory of the genocide alive through various means of documentation and advocacy. The ongoing demand for justice underscores the enduring scars left by the genocide and the imperative of addressing its legacy to foster healing and reconciliation.

The Bangladesh genocide, a horrific episode that claimed millions of lives and continues to impact survivors, remains a complex and under-recognized chapter of history. Despite international legal frameworks and growing recognition from independent organizations, the official designation of genocide by the UN is still pending. This case highlights the intricate interplay of geopolitics, historical memory, and the pursuit of justice in the aftermath of genocide.

Bangladesh's ongoing pursuit for recognition is a powerful reminder of the importance of acknowledging past atrocities.  Official recognition offers a path to accountability, bolsters international efforts to prevent future genocides, and provides validation to the victims and survivors.  While the scars of the Bangladesh genocide run deep, the nation's resilience and unwavering pursuit of justice offer valuable lessons for the international community.

Rubaiyet Binte Nazmul is a career diplomat from Bangladesh. She joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 2019. She worked in the Consular; Administration; International Trade, Investment and Technology; North America and South America wing in the Bangladesh Foreign Office. Currently, she is pursuing Master of Global Affairs at Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto. She was awarded the prestigious Prime Minister’s Fellowship Award in 2023 to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Toronto. Before joining the Bangladesh Foreign Service, she worked as a system engineer in Grameenphone. She completed her BSc in Electrical & Electronic Engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET) and MSc in Renewable Energy & Technology from the University of Dhaka. She can be communicated at the email addresses: rubaiyet.nazmul@mail.utoronto.ca and rubaiyet.nazmul@mofa.gov.bd

 

References:

 

Aafreedi, N. J. (2023, April 4). Issue Editor’s Note: The Bangladesh Genocide of 1971: Remembrance versus Denial. Café Dissensus. https://cafedissensus.com/2023/04/04/issue-editors-note-the-bangladesh-genocide-of-1971-remembrance-versus-denial/

Ahmed, I. (2022). RECOGNISING THE 1971 BANGLADESH GENOCIDE: AN APPEAL FOR RENDERING JUSTICE. Nymphea Publication.

 

BAGHDASSARIAN, A. (2022). The Legal Significance of U.S. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide: Implications for Strategic Litigation. Harvard International Law Journal. https://journals.law.harvard.edu/ilj/2022/05/the-legal-significance-of-u-s-recognition-of-the-armenian-genocide-implications-for-strategic-litigation/

Bangladesh Genocide of 1971 has been recognized by IASG resolution. (2023). Ministry of Foreign Affairs. https://mofa.portal.gov.bd/site/press_release/e3cbabc0-e4ad-424c-afe7-fbe503005a35

Barry, E. (2016, June 27). To U.S. in ’70s, a Dissenting Diplomat. To Bangladesh, ‘a True Friend.’ The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/world/asia/bangladesh-archer-blood-cable.html

Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume E-7, South Asia, 1969-1972. (n.d.). US Department of State Archive. https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/e7txt/47241.htm

Gen. Tikka Khan, 87; ‘Butcher of Bengal’ Led Pakistani Army. (2002, March 30). Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-mar-30-me-passings30.1-story.html

HALDER, N. (2024, March 16). Tragic end of a life devoted to Rabindrasangeet. The Financial Express. https://thefinancialexpress.com.bd/views/analysis/tragic-end-of-a-life-devoted-to-rabindrasangeet

Jahan, R. (2004). Genocide in Bangladesh. In Century of Genocide. Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780203495698-15/genocide-bangladesh-rounaq-jahan?context=ubx

Mazumder, K. U. (2022, November 13). US Resolution On 1971 Genocide: Opportunity To Rectify Wrong Policy Towards Bangladesh – OpEd. Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention. https://www.lemkininstitute.com/single-post/us-resolution-on-1971-genocide-opportunity-to-rectify-wrong-policy-towards-bangladesh-oped

Noor, T. R. (2022, November 22). Recognition of the Bangladesh Genocide. Genocide Watch. https://www.genocidewatch.com/single-post/recognition-of-the-bangladesh-genocide-of-1971

Niazi, A. A. K. (1998). The Betrayal of East Pakistan. Oxford University Press.

O’Brien, D. M. (2022). The Ramifications Of Recognition Of Genocide. Australian Institute of International Affairs. https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-ramifications-of-recognition-of-genocide/

Singh, M. G. S. (2012). 1971: The blitzkrieg in East Pakistan - I. In India’s War Since Independence. https://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/1971-the-blitzkrieg-in-east-pakistan-i/

 

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