Bangladesh, traditionally a parliamentary democracy of 150 million citizens, is currently led by a caretaker government backed by the military. In January 2007, in the wake of violent political unrest, the president 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. The human rights situation worsened in 2007, in part due to the state of emergency and postponed elections. The government-imposed Emergency Powers Rules curtailed or suspended many fundamental rights, including freedom of 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 due process. Although there were fewer extrajudicial killings, there was an increase in illegal detentions and abuse in custody, particularly by the military, which assumed a higher-profile role in domestic security. Trafficking in persons, forced labor, and abuses against women and children remained serious problems. While the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Islam is the official state religion, and protection of minority communities remained inconsistent.
U.S. human rights and democracy goals in the country include full participation of political parties in free and fair national elections by the end of 2008; 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 in the government, endorsing respect for the rule of law, and seeking justice against the perpetrators of political and extremist violence.
U.S. officials routinely emphasize the importance of restoring an elected government 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. 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 under the state of emergency. U.S. officials also meet with victims of human rights abuses and intercede with the government on specific cases. For example, in 2007 U.S. officials intervened in a case involving the death of an indigenous activist and another involving a reporter who was illegally detained and abused in custody.
The United States supports numerous projects to promote democracy in the country and to lay the foundation for elections by the end of 2008. Since January 2007, government-imposed restrictions on political party activities through the state of emergency have limited the conduct of public programs to enhance party development. Nevertheless, the U.S. government continues to enhance the capability of political parties and civil society leaders to monitor, assess, and report on the political and electoral process. In particular, the United States has worked to foster a dialogue between the Election Commission and political parties on electoral reform issues. The United States also supported a survey on the integrity of the country's voter list to examine the extent of and reason for errors. The Election Commission used the survey as a basis for moving forward with a new voter registration effort. The United States continues to chair a local consultative working group of international donors to coordinate programs and initiatives in support of elections. In addition, the United States is continuing to support local media to effectively report on election-related issues.
Despite limitations imposed by the state of emergency, the United States promotes the development of local government associations to act as advocates for enhanced local governance. In 2007 two U.S.-supported associations played a pivotal role in advancing local government reforms and promoting the decentralization of resources and services to the local level. To deepen the role of women in public management, the U.S. government provided support to more than 700 elected female council members. The women received leadership advocacy training to assist them in expanding their responsibilities within their respective local government councils. Another ongoing U.S. program aims to increase accountability, strengthen parliamentary oversight, and implement legal reforms to promote greater access to information.
The United States provides support to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for its activities to assist more than 20,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma and continues to encourage the government to cooperate in improving living conditions in refugee camps, including increasing access to education and granting permission for refugees to work. U.S. assistance programs also promote tolerance and diversity through civil society. One such program has exposed more than 5,000 local religious leaders to fundamental national development issues by engaging them in dialogue about values and practices of democracy and development. As a result, these leaders disseminate messages of tolerance to their local communities.
The rights of workers to assemble and unionize freely were suspended under the state of emergency. However, the United States continues to engage with workers, owners, and government officials on educating workers, both inside and outside export processing zones (EPZs), and on employer compliance with international 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 works with employers to improve adherence to labor standards.
The United States works closely with the government to develop and implement a strategy to combat trafficking in persons. U.S. officials meet monthly with the government to monitor the progress of the antitrafficking police unit and work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to improve the ability of consular services in the country's foreign embassies to aid trafficking victims stranded abroad. The United States conducts training programs on trafficking investigations for prosecutors and police officers. U.S. government-supported training has been provided to more than 450 lawyers and prosecutors on the proper management of trafficking cases through improved victim and witness interviewing techniques and better evidence collection and presentation standards. In 2007 a comprehensive referral and after-care procedures doctrine was developed for police officers in close collaboration with civil society. The United States also supports services providing shelter, health care, psychological counseling, and legal aid services to victims of trafficking, the majority of whom are women.