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Bangladesh: Disquiet over draft Citizenship Bill 2016 | Commentary and Review

12 February 2017

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Dhaka Tribune, February 09, 2017

No home away from home - The new Citizenship Bill is self-defeating

by Luba Khalili

One wouldn’t need to cross the Atlantic to learn of fascism under a shoddy veil of democracy.

It can be found right here at home.

The world has been watching as Donald Trump’s cabinet continues to rile up a good majority of the Western world by its harrowing take on the government and grazing past the American constitution with bullets of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other words we’ve come to associate with tyrannical and oppressive regimes. For good measure, too.

I mean, the individual chosen to be the secretary of education — whose background in the field is as much as my five-year old nephew’s in building non-Lego skyscrapers — is almost ambitious, but mostly, a sad feat coming from one of the biggest democracies in the world.

But much closer to home, as we watch the Land of the Free be a margin away from all that it was supposed to stand for, we can also see our own country taking a leaf out of the new New World’s regime.

How much the Citizenship Bill, 2016 has been talked about is unclear to me, but it is a discourse that has the power to change the narrative of being Bangladeshi.

The bill, drafted last year, cancels out previous acts and orders of citizenship matters in Bangladesh, and posits new restrictions for dual citizens.

For people who were born abroad to Bangladeshi parents, for people who have a parent who isn’t Bangladeshi, things are about to change, and given the way our nation operates, probably not for the better.

From not being able to hold positions in government, to getting involved in political parties — exclusion from such a great honour — the provisions entailed in the bill are meant to restrict rights. Rights that, constitutionally, everyone in the republic should have. Rights, if violated, mean violation of the constitution.

Now, the cabinet definitely has its own justifications for approving such a bill, but limiting citizenship to individuals who care about being Bangladeshi takes a devastating toll on building national identities.

If the struggle for independence — the true unifier of all Bangladeshi people — has allowed for the sovereignty of our nation to come about, then the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has one thing to show for it: Our constitution

Especially if a bill such as this brings in talks of an “alien enemy,” which holds children accountable for the beliefs of their parents.

In a time where one of our neighbouring countries does not flinch while attempting to ruthlessly wipe out an entire ethnic group, and questions of accommodating this group into our country on the basis on human rights is constantly brought up, rendering a child of a parent who is an apparent alien enemy stateless – which this bill might just set out to do – can even be an act against humanity itself.

If the struggle for independence — the true unifier of all Bangladeshi people — has allowed for the sovereignty of our nation to come about, then the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has one thing to show for it: Our constitution.

And laws and amendments such as the new Citizenship Bill have incredibly unconstitutional air to them — even if they are passed in the name of national unity.

Post-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon once wrote about the paradox of national identity; that the revolution of the Third World often finds itself at a confusing space created by its very attempt at liberating itself from its oppressors.

Failing to be inclusive of nuances across its own population, the understanding of “nation” becomes too tethered to a certain class, too much akin to the very notions it has tried to shake off of itself.

These attempts at amassing the people are contrived, and ultimately, self-defeating.

If we apply a closer thought, that bit of Fanon’s articulation of the national identity fits well with the paradigm of what bills such as these are trying to achieve. By categorising Bangladeshis within labels that discriminate and provide putative superiors in comparison to the ones who are catergorised as “second-class,” or “alien enemy,” we are failing at recognising the nuance of the heterogeneity that we all — as Bangladeshis, born on this soil or otherwise — possess.

In the name of being unified, in the name of being Bangladeshi, what we’re creating is a systematic subjugation of people who are our own.

So, as we watch the new US president’s cabinet thrash about on their grand constitution and feel pity at the rhetoric that may get produced from the combination of hypocrisy and xenophobia, a good thing to not forget is that the same rhetoric can be — and is being — created right here around us.

And instead of engaging only in debates of how the Trump presidency is hurting the largest economy and its people, we can actually talk about the attempts which our own country are making that maybe don’t put the West to shame, but definitely bring a dark cloud over our own struggle of liberation.

Luba Khalili is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune.

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The Daily Star, January 08, 2017

Review proposed citizenship law

by Najrul Khasru

On February 1, 2016, the Cabinet of Bangladesh government approved its draft Citizenship Bill 2016, paving the way for it to go through the Parliamentary procedure at a suitable time. That procedure is yet to be initiated.

Bangladesh being a unitary state with a static homogeneous population, its citizenship legislation should not generate, in the normal course of events, much interest. Unlike countries such as the USA and Britain where nationality and citizenship issues generate voluminous case law every year, scarcely any such issues reaches the Supreme Court of Bangladesh (the last such case appears to be that of the case of Sadaqat Khan V Chief Election Commissioner (2008), where it was determined and confirmed that all members of the “Urdu-speaking people” of Bangladesh, who satisfied the existing legal framework for acquiring citizenship, were citizens of Bangladesh).

However, the content of this particular draft legislation has astounded a large number of people. There has been a growing level of anger and apprehension about the proposed law among Bangladeshis living abroad. The Urdu-speaking Bangladeshis are fearful of their fate if the proposed law comes into force. Concerns have also been aired by legal experts and human rights organisations in Bangladesh and abroad. It is likely that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is following the progress of the proposed law with a degree of trepidation.

To understand this level of disquiet nationally and globally, it is necessary to have an in-depth, objective and focused analysis of the salient points of a few provisions of the proposed law.

The draft law contains five chapters (it erroneously numbers the chapters as first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth), 28 sections and one schedule. The discussion in this article would be confined to just a few sections within chapters one and two of the draft, which primarily provide the definitions of terms used in the draft and deal with ways for acquiring citizenships of Bangladesh.

Section 4(1) defines citizenship by birth. However, section 4(2)(b) of the draft states that the children of enemy aliens would not be entitled to have citizenship of Bangladesh by birth regardless of whether they fulfil the criteria for such citizenship.

To identify those who would be affected by this, it is necessary to understand the definition of the term enemy alien. Section 2(7) of the draft defines enemy alien as a state which is or was engaged in a war with Bangladesh. This is totally unhelpful, as we know that a state cannot be a parent and even in the 21st century it still takes human beings to give birth to human beings!

Although the definition of enemy alien is very narrow in international law, reading between the lines, the policymakers of Bangladesh would probably define the term as follows: “Any person living in Bangladesh who supports or supported another state with which Bangladesh is or was at war.” On that assumption it may be possible to infer who would be encompassed by this subsection.

Only occasion that Bangladesh had been at war with another country was in 1971, when it fought Pakistan and won its independence. It is well-known that a large part of the Urdu-speaking population, among others, actively supported the Pakistan Army during that war. These people could come under the above definition. However, it would not be the enemy aliens whose citizenship would be at risk (if they are Bangladeshi citizens) under the proposed law, it is their children who purport to lose their birth citizenship simply by virtue of being the children of enemy aliens, thereby becoming stateless. Their number is estimated to be over 250,000.

To create statelessness arbitrarily through legislation is an extraordinary proposition. It defies logic and is against the principles of natural justice. It comes into sharp conflict with Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides: “Everyone has a right to nationality” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” It falls foul of UNHCR’s declaration: “Statelessness is a profound violation of an individual’s human rights.” It also negates the UNHCR’s aspiration to reduce statelessness to zero by 2024.

A well-established principle of rule of law is that a new legislation cannot have retrospective effect. However, this proposed law clearly shows retrospective intent. In an unprecedented move, Section 3 of the draft states that this Act would have priority over, among other things, any previous court decisions or decrees. A true interpretation of that may have the effect of nullifying the Sadaqat Khan decision stated above.

Section 5 of the draft defines citizenship by descent. This provides citizenship to children born outside of Bangladesh to a Bangladeshi parent or parents. These children would include those whose parents were abroad during their births perhaps studying, working, getting medical treatment, or just travelling. Interestingly, this would also include those who were born on the soil of India during the nine-month long liberation struggle as well as those Bangladeshis who were born in the territory of the then West Pakistan due to, perhaps, their parents working there, or being stranded after the Liberation War. Their number would probably be tens of thousands and the vast majority would have no other nationality. One would expect them to have all the rights enjoyed by all other citizens of Bangladesh. But by virtue of Sections 13 and 7(2) of the draft their rights would be severely restricted turning them virtually second class citizens in their own country. For example, they would not be eligible to stand for any local or national elections, would not be allowed to become a Supreme Court Judge or have any government employment, and would have no right to organise a political group. These restrictions are clearly inconsistent with the Constitution which provides that the State shall not discriminate against any citizens on grounds of place of birth only.

Draft Sections 5, 7, 8 and 13 combined, if implemented, would firstly deny the right of citizenship by descent to second and subsequent generations of Bangladeshis born abroad, and secondly, all other Bangladeshis who have acquired citizenships of another country would have similar restrictions as stated above on their Bangladeshi citizenships.

It is reliably estimated that 1.5 million Bangladeshis living in the UK, USA, Canada, Europe and Australia would be affected by these provisions. The purpose of creating a distance between them and the land of their origin by means of legislation is unfathomable. These are highly resourceful people, contributing over 4 billion dollars a year to Bangladesh’s foreign exchange. Many of them are highly skilled, with expertise in diverse fields and are well-connected in powerful Western capitals. Properly utilised they could play a significant part in the government’s aspirations to turn Bangladesh into a middle-income country.

A study conducted by The Economist in June 2015 found that countries all over the world are now recognising that their citizens abroad can benefit the country of their origin in multiple ways and for generations to come. Countries as diverse as Nigeria, Turkey and Vietnam are discovering ways of tapping into the expertise that their own citizens settled in the West possess. An increasing number of countries, in order to bring their resourceful expatriate communities closer to home, are now recognising that the diasporas are simply an extension of their population within their own territories. A significant number of countries have reserved seats in their Parliaments for their citizens living abroad. Against this world trend, Bangladesh’s policymakers’ decision to take a regressive step is bewildering.

The evidence that this draft legislation has not been properly thought through is pretty conclusive. Its various provisions would go against natural justice and the concept of the rule of law would be inconsistent with the Constitution, in breach of a number of international treaties and charters and against the country’s economic and cultural interests. The implementation of such a law would bring the country’s democratic credentials into disrepute. Bangladesh would lose its moral authority to be critical of nations such as Myanmar, where human rights violation has been institutionalised.

The argument for a thorough review of the draft legislation is compelling.

The writer is a British Bangladeshi, a barrister and a tribunal judge in England. E-mail: khasru_uk[at]

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Report on Citizenship Law Bangladesh by Ridwanul Hoque
2016 / European University Institute


The above articles from Dhaka Tribune and The Daily Star are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use