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24 December 2015, Gateway House

War crimes: Bangladesh shows the way

At a time when Islamic fundamentalism is threatening the world, Bangladesh as a moderate muslim democracy occupies a unique position in actively confronting this threat under Sheikh Hasina. Instead of the unjustified criticism levied against its war trials, the West must actively support its fight against terror.

Director, Gateway House

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Like every year, the Victory Day celebrations in Bangladesh on 16 December mark the triumph of Bangladesh over Pakistan in the Liberation War of 1971. This year, however—is different—as the day also marks the beginning of a sense that justice is finally being afforded to the people of Bangladesh.

Since its revival in 2009, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has so far convicted 24 people, awarded the death penalty to a dozen—of whom—four have been executed  while a few were tried in absentia. [1] [2] Among them, one accused, Abul Kalam Azad, was tried in absentia and is alleged to be hiding in Pakistan. Most of the convicted are members of either the Jamaat-E-Islami (JEI) or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The genesis of the present trials lies in the success of the eastern half of Pakistan breaking away, after a long bloody struggle, to become the independent republic of Bangladesh on 26 March, 1971. The deliberate destruction and orchestrated mass killings by the Pakistani Army counted among its victims — 3 million people dead, over 400,000 women raped and 10 million refugees who fled to India. [3]

Unfortunately for Bangladesh, its plans to bring war criminals to trial and institutionalise the democratic and secular impulses of the struggle for independence were snuffed out when the leader of the Republic, Sheikh Mujib Rahman was assassinated on 15 August, 1975. Successive military dictatorships sought legitimisation through the Islamification of both the constitution and society with General Zia ur-Rahman discarding ‘secularism’ from the constitution in the mid-1970s and General Ershad adopting Islam as the state religion in 1988.

The turning point came when after suffering an assassination attempt at a political rally in 2004, Sheikh Hasina determined that she had no choice but to confront the increasing Islamisation of Bangladeshi society. [4] In 2008, the Awami league won a massive mandate and began the trials of the perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The international responses have been varied. India is the only country that has come out in full support of the efforts of the Sheikh Hasina government. The Pakistani government has expressed anguish over the executions of war cirminals. This infuriated the Bangladeshi establishment so much that it has vowed to review its relationship with Pakistan. It is significant that Dhaka University, many of whose leading intellectuals were targeted by the Pakistan Army and its local collaborators, has already severed its ties with Pakistani educational institutions and has urged the state to do the same. The United States has expressed the hope that the International Crimes Tribunal would follow international standards.  This is not surprising because the U.S. complicity with Pakistan in the war against the people in East Pakistan was evident in the decision of then President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to send the seventh fleet into the Bay of Bengal, to threaten India despite the fact that they were aware of the genocide being carried out by the Pakistani Army.

While the responses of the Pakistani and the U.S. governments are explicable, more questionable are the motives of western human rights organisations.  Along with the UN and the EU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticised the trial process and the imposition of the death penalty. They have urged Bangladesh to meet international standards since the country is party to the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. [5] Such criticisms raise questions which should no longer be ignored.

These questions include whether the Government of Bangladesh owes it to its people to punish the perpetrators of heinous crimes against humanity or not. Forty years have already passed before the process could duly commence, but it hasn’t diminished the demand for justice, especially amongst the younger generation. Through the Shahbagh movement, the young populace unequivocally expressed their desire for punishment of the highest order – the death penalty for war criminals. This question assumes poignancy in the larger context of whether these trials are fair, as most of these covenants arose out of the European experience of World War I and II and take no account of the different historical experiences and specific circumstances in other parts of the world.  This is becoming increasingly evident in the rejection of the International Criminal Court (ICC) by African countries, where they have denounced the institution for dispensing justice ‘selectively or politically’ and have criticized its lack of understanding of complex local conflicts, where a nation should be allowed to come to terms with its past in its own way, as long as there is no violation of fundamental rights. [6]

Even within this limited legal framework, the West led by the U.S., disregards international covenants in pursuit of terrorists – most prominently in the American invasion of Iraq, the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and the current bombings underway in Syria.

The touch of healing that the Truth and Reconciliation commissions set up in South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid may be a better example to adapt from than the expensive, unending processes Sierra Leone and Liberia had to undergo after their civil wars. The experience of African countries with the International Criminal Court where only they are on the mat is now leading to open criticism and distancing from the ICC for its unrealistic arcane methodologies. Unless international institutions evolve their standards to take account of diverse experiences, an alternate international system of justice will emerge just like the alternate financial architecture that is emerging due to the obduracy of the West to reform existing institutions.

Even as realism goes it is baffling that in the context of the threats emerging from extremists Islamist organisations such as ISIS, and the U.S. proclaiming the organisation as “one of the gravest threats to humanity”, [7] there is no support, only criticism of Bangladesh, one of the few Islamic countries headed by a moderate leader attempting to confront extremist forces engulfing the country.

The stand taken by the Indian government that the war crimes trial and the awarding of the death penalties are an internal matter of Bangladesh was not just the right approach but also the moral approach. India must do everything within its mean to extend support to Sheikh Hasina’s government in the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. If the world is serious about confronting jihadism, the West too will come to the assistance of Bangladesh.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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[1] International Crimes Tribunal-1, Bangladesh, 15 September 2015,<>

[2] The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s war trial: List of fugitives gets longer, 14 December 2015,<>

[3] Roy Choudhary, Dipanjan, Children of War: Horrors of Bangla Liberation War revisited,   Economic Times, 18 May 2014 <>

[4] Datta, Sreeradha,  Attack on Sheikh Hasina, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, July 2004 <>

[5] International Criminal Court, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, <>

[6] S. Kimenyi, Mwangi, Can the International Criminal Court play fair?, Brookings Institution, 17 October 2013, <>

[7] Kerry, John. Remarks on the U.S. Strategy in Syria. U.S. Department of State. 12 November, 2015,<>.