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Homepage > Publication Type > Media Releases > Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track

Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track

Dhaka/Brussels  |   11 Dec 2009

The Bangladesh government should take major steps to overhaul a dysfunctional policing system that facilitates corruption and human rights abuses to limit the role of the military in politics.

Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track ,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the dire state of Bangladesh’s police and the shortcomings of the current reform process led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It shows how the failing police force, which lacks sufficient ethical and professional standards and often flouts the law it is supposed to uphold, is overstretched, underpaid and outmatched by criminal elements, and unable to cope with increasing demands of a modern democratic society.

Donor efforts to improve police functioning are having only a marginal impact. With an elected government in place again, there are new opportunities to ramp up reform. But there are also significant obstacles, namely political will – which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led government is sorely lacking – and a vision of the police as something other than a tool to line the pockets of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.

“The police themselves recognise that they are not up to job and are urging the government to commit to a deeper reform process”, says Michael Shaikh, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst. “If the Awami League does not listen, the army could step into fill the security gap as it has in the past causing the democratic transition to falter”.

Underscoring the urgency of root and branch reform was the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny in February, which left over 75 dead and prompted fears of another army coup. The conditions that led to the rebellion – mistrust between high and low ranking officers; scant promotion possibilities for low ranking officers; mandatory overtime without compensation; and the government’s failure to keep salaries in line with the rising costs of living – also prevail within police force.

The UNDP Police Reform Programme (PRP) has tried to address some of these issues but poor management and undefined goals have prevented it from having more impact. Mostly due to the government’s lack of political will, the PRP does not address the most dire structural problems that enable abuse, corruption, vigilantism and extremism. Without the National Assembly passing a new police law, any progress on reform, however marginal, is subject to rapid reversal.

To put reform on track, parliament should scrap the current police law, the Police Act of 1861. Designed primarily to keep imperial India’s subjects in line, the colonial-era legal hangover makes the police more accountable to politicians than the public. In fact, the broad powers the law gives the government have made control of police one of the spoils of a winning in an election in Bangladesh.

“For a country that has done so much to unshackle itself from colonialism, it is surprising that a British Raj era law is still on the books, particularly one that is so bad”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “If the law sticks, and the police continue to be political pawns, the force may be damaged beyond repair at a great cost not only to Bangladeshis but also to the current and future elected governments”.

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