In 1948, the newly formed intergovernmental United Nations (UN) declared genocide as a crime under international law. Since then, the UN has considered genocide to be a problem of severe international concern. Meanwhile, more than half a century ago, in 1971, Bangladesh emerged as a new country after experiencing one of the most devastating genocides of the 20th century.
The massacres and material destructions of the Bangladesh genocide were intentional and systematic. Usually, the victims of genocide are targeted on the basis of ‘multiple and overlapping’ identities. The Bangladesh genocide is no exception.
In 1971, people were targeted on the basis of ethnic group (Bengali community) and religious group (Hindu community). In addition, the massive slaughter of Bengali politicians, community leaders and thought leaders was a prima facie case of genocide within the terms of the UN’s prime genocide prevention treaty, the Genocide Convention.
The lesser-known genocide
Even though renowned scholars have endorsed Bangladesh’s case as genocide, to date this catastrophe is strikingly little known outside the country’s border. The Bangladesh case is omitted from most publications about genocide. This reflects the peripheral position of this case in genocide scholarship. This means that there is a long way to go on the road to recognition.
Endorsement of any genocide, including the Bangladesh case, is crucial. It entails three fundamentals: (i) paying respect to the genocide’s victims; (ii) giving solace to victims’ family members and arranging reparations; and (iii) bringing the perpetrators to justice. This latter acts as a deterrent. If local and international stakeholders allow genocide to go unchallenged or unrecognised, the risk of repetition remains.
Endorsement of any genocide, including the Bangladesh case, is crucial.
These fundamentals justify the demand to realise the long-pending recognition of the Bangladesh case as genocide even five decades after it occurred.
Uniquely among such documents, the Preamble of Bangladesh’s Constitution outlines the core of why and how the country came into being. It clearly mentions that the sovereign independent country was established through a historic struggle for national liberation. It goes on to refer to the four principles—nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism—that motivated people to sacrifice their lives for freedom.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s Constitution does not mention the crimes, including genocide and war crimes, committed by the Pakistani army and their local allies over the people who were seeking self-determination.
In 2017, after 46 years of independence, Bangladesh’s parliament unanimously adopted a resolution declaring 25 March as Genocide Day. Since then, the country has officially observed that day to remember the barbarities committed by the Pakistani army and its auxiliary forces during the 1971 war.
The Bangladesh genocide started on the evening of 25 March in 1971 with a pogrom codenamed ‘Operation Searchlight.’ And yet the wording of the Genocide Day resolution is misleading, because it states that the day is to be observed ‘in remembrance of the brutality carried out by the Pakistani Army on the “Black Night” of March 25, 1971.’ This seriously limits the gravity of a nine-month long spree of atrocities to the events of a single night.
Needless to say, for the sake of clarity, the wording of the resolution needs correction. Meanwhile, since 2017, Bangladeshi legislators have passed 189 laws—but a law stipulating how to observe Genocide Day has yet to be seen. This is also a low-hanging fruit, on which action can be immediately undertaken.
Remembering the day in 1948 when the Genocide Convention was formally accepted, the UN body in 2015 declared 9 December as International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime.
Some Bangladeshi human rights activists have lobbied the UN to shift the day to 25 March. This is clearly unreasonable. A better approach would be to ask the international community to officially recognise Bangladesh’s genocide and to declare 25 March as Bangladesh Genocide Day. This would project both solidarity and inclusion for Bangladesh.
Institutional advocacy also plays into the larger recognition plan. In 2022, Bangladesh’s national Genocide Day couple with a small breakthrough. Three US-based international organisations recognised the Bangladesh genocide of 1971.
Strangely, recognition of the genocide has not had much traction within Bangladeshi public discourse. Hereby, a booklet titled ‘Recognising the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide: An Appeal for Rendering Justice’, published in March 2022 by Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry, has not enlisted the three US-based organisations which acknowledged Bangladesh genocide. Only through progress on recognition from different stakeholders within the country can Bangladesh seriously move its agenda on the world stage.
This suggests that, on the journey of achieving global recognition of the Bangladesh case, the government, concerned activist platforms, the media and the Bangladeshi diaspora need to start speaking up.
…on the journey of achieving global recognition of the Bangladesh case, the government, concerned activist platforms, the media and the Bangladeshi diaspora need to start speaking up.
Coalition of the willing
Civil society and the diaspora are crucial elements of Bangladesh’s genocide recognition push. In 2022, a Netherlands-based diaspora organisation, Bangladesh Support Group (BASUG), along with two Bangladeshi platforms, Projonmo ’71 and Aamra Ekattor, formally appealed to the UN Human Rights Council to recognise the Bangladesh genocide. During the session, BASUG organised a discussion in Geneva in collaboration with the European Bangladesh Forum and the Switzerland Human Rights Forum. Bangladesh’s government was supportive of this initiative.
Cross-collaboration by Bangladeshi and diaspora civil society groups is a very promising step in lobbying for global recognition of the Bangladesh genocide. In October 2022, another symbolic game-changer was bipartisan legislation seeking formal recognition of the 1971 Bangladesh genocide introduced in the US House of Representatives. Below are some key features of this recognition:
- The resolution, titled ‘Recognizing the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971,’ calls for punishment under international law of war criminals in the Pakistani Army and their allies for the murder of 3 million people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
- Pakistan must acknowledge its role in the genocide and offer formal apologies to Bangladesh.
- Pakistan, in accordance with international law, should bring the living perpetrators to justice.
The US Congress resolution initiative has been the result of hard work by activists. Since 2020, many advocacy initiatives, such as resolutions and presentations, have been implemented in support of genocide recognition. All these have created early momentum towards Bangladesh genocide recognition. If this intensifies in the coming years, other organisations will also acknowledge the Bangladesh genocide.
Pathways to recognition
Since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the geopolitical situation has changed significantly. As a result, it has become more challenging, particularly for the younger generations, to disseminate information on what really happened in Bangladesh in 1971. This reality calls for an all-encompassing recognition plan.
Grand plan: Bangladesh as a country truly deserves to achieve international recognition of the genocide that occurred on its lands in 1971. For this to happen, the country needs to take a methodical approach. A grand plan needs to be formulated in a participatory way under the leadership of the relevant government body. Only then will the voices of all stakeholders be heard. Both short- and long-term advocacy activities need to be listed. These need to be prioritised, incorporated in the plan and then executed as designed.
Dedicated call: Bangladesh’s government must create a Genocide Recognition Cell, housed in a suitable ministry, such as the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry or the Liberation War Affairs Ministry. Inter-ministerial coordination will then be vital, especially with regard to consulting stakeholders from civil society. A holistic workplan to this end needs to be formulated.
Bangladesh’s government must create a Genocide Recognition Cell, housed in a suitable ministry…
Sensitisation: International crimes like genocide are a complex concept to understand, even for activists. There is surely a lack of conceptual clarity among the stakeholders of the recognition movement of Bangladesh. Effective plans need to be designed to sensitise all of society, including both government and non-government actors.
Education reform: The concepts of genocide and information on Bangladesh’s case need to be incorporated in the country’s education curriculum. New light needs to be shed on these issues to prevent them fading away from the collective memory. This will motivate younger generations to carry the baton forward. In this pursuit, ‘genocide risk education’ modules should be added to Bangladesh’s curriculum.
Youth inclusion: Bangladeshi decision-makers can create a youth consortium programme on genocide research. Many tech-savvy young Bangladeshis are archiving invaluable resources related to the country’s liberation struggle, war and genocide in 1971. The government should bring these young people under one umbrella so they can systematically and collaboratively develop an accessible go-to archive.
Research funding: Bangladesh should allocate funds for use in carrying out international standard research centre on Bangladesh’s genocide and liberation war. Funding should also go towards the writing of books and the creation of audio-visual materials on these matters.
In a post-genocide society, the testimonies of survivors and victims’ family members are imperative. Bangladesh should urgently initiate the consistent collection of testimonies from across the country. Eye-witness accounts will no longer be available in 10 years or so because these witnesses are ageing fast.
Museums and memorial sites play a crucial role in restoring memory. Museums such as the Liberation War Museum and the Genocide Museum in Bangladesh can take the lead here. Meanwhile, Bangladesh must identify its friends, including the diaspora and non-Bangladeshis, who will support its recognition endeavour.
Reorienting diplomacy: Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry needs to reform foreign policy so that diplomacy tools and guidelines are in line with the recognition agenda. Diplomats should build networks and lobby different host governments to obtain endorsement (resolution/statements) of the Bangladesh case. Diplomats can also engage diaspora groups within their country of mission. A concerned desk at the relevant embassy would be helpful in this pursuit.
It is a harsh reality that the UN played a very passive role when Bangladesh was experiencing these atrocities in 1971. Today, however, Bangladesh is a key player within the developing countries’ club at the UN. Obviously, obtaining recognition from the UN will be challenging. With guidelines from the Foreign Ministry, though, Bangladesh’s UN Mission can put in place a clear plan to facilitate the process at the UN level.
Bangladesh was quick to set up a special court to deal with the war crimes of 1971. It established the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in 1973 as one of the earliest systematic attempts by the country to seek justice for the genocide. This was the first major such tribunal in the world since the trials post-World War II and the first in history in which the vocabulary of genocide was front and centre.
The ICT trials preceded the national trials in Ethiopia, national-level attempts at fact-finding and prosecution in Cambodia and the ad hoc international tribunals established for Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Cambodia not just by years but by decades.
After the assassination in 1975 of Bangladesh’s then-president Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the trial process was stopped. However, the ICT was revived in 2010. It has conducted several cases since then and delivered and executed verdicts.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal has been little studied by comparative genocide scholars, particularly legal scholars. Here also, traction is needed. In the recognition endeavour, a great deal of research and dissemination into the insights of Bangladesh’s ICT are required.
Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal has been little studied by comparative genocide scholars, particularly legal scholars.
Bangladesh needs to take all necessary steps to expedite the war crime trial process. There cannot be any compromise on this issue. The promising point is that the political will for this exists. Changes in geopolitics are inevitable but they should not influence the continuation of the 1971 war crime trials. This will also fuel momentum for the recognition of the Bangladesh genocide.
Stakeholders in the recognition mission include citizen groups, diasporas, cultural fronts, survivors, researchers, victims’ family members, youth and anti-genocide activists. Every group can contribute in its own way. To be effective, elements like funding, research, technical knowhow, networking and lobbying are all important.
Bangladesh’s government needs to be the key player in the genocide recognition endeavour. However, a big responsibility also lies with the country’s citizens, who need to strongly support the government in its work. Only then will the long-pending demand for recognition of the Bangladesh case be rewarded!
 Most of the politicians targeted belonged to the Awami League, the most organised political party in Bangladesh in 1971.
 The genocide campaign started surrounding Bangladesh’s declaration of independence in March 1971. After the declaration, the Pakistani army was essentially an occupying force.
 The organizations which recognized Bangladesh genocide are – Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, Genocide Watch and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
 Projonmo ’71 is a platform for the children of the martyrs of 1971, and Aamra Ekattor is a platform fostering the values of Bangladesh’s liberation war. BASUG, Projonmo’71 and Aamra Ekattor submitted an appeal at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council.
 The legislation was introduced by Congressman Steve Chabot and Congressman Ro Khanna.
Cover: 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, July 2022 | Photo by Loey Felipe/UN Photo.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu