Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track
Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track

After decades of misuse and neglect, Bangladesh’s police are a source of instability and fear rather than a key component of a democratic society.


Executive Summary

After decades of misuse and neglect, Bangladesh’s police are a source of instability and fear rather than a key component of a democratic society. Human rights abuses are endemic and almost all Bangladeshis who interact with the police complain of corruption. With an elected government in place again, there are now opportunities to reform this dysfunctional force. But there are also significant obstacles. If the government fails to move beyond the current modest reform process, the democratic transition could falter should deteriorating security give the military another chance to intervene, using, as it has in the past, the pretext of upholding law and order to justify derailing democracy. Deep structural reforms – including a new police law – and major additional resources are necessary to create an effective and accountable service. Above all, it will take 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 of political control and a source of patronage.

Life in the police force is difficult and unrewarding for most officers. Working conditions are deplorable. Many officers are overworked, the transfer system has become a major source of corruption within and out of the police, and salaries are abysmal, even by local standards. Pay raises and promotions are infrequent and do almost nothing to improve the lives of officers or promote competency in the force. Without improved salaries and working conditions, no amount of oversight will help curb the corruption and malaise that is rife in the police. 

The dire state of the force reflects failures by successive governments to grasp the centrality of a functional civilian police service to their legitimacy. While most have acknowledged the fundamental flaws in the antiquated system of policing, none – including the current one – has seen reform as a priority. Rather a weak, corrupt and politicised force has allowed government agents to use the police to further their own narrow interests. And when left with little choice but to confront law and order issues such as rising crime or increasing extremist activity, the party in power has relied on quick fixes, including empowering the military to counter rising crime, rather than empowering the police as a sustainable solution. Not only have half measures diverted necessary resources away from the police but they have also expanded the role of the military into what are normally civilian matters.

Ironically it was the military-backed caretaker government (CTG) that resuscitated the UN-sponsored Police Reform Programme (PRP) scuttled by the last Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government. During the two-year state of emergency between January 2007 and December 2008 the military clamped down on politicisation and temporarily allowed the CTG to make progress on a number of reforms stalled under the previous government, including police reform. As police reform was more a donor priority than a Bangladeshi one, it has made little progress. Despite consolidating support for reform within the police and updating infrastructure, its flagship community policing initiative has faltered. Poor management and undefined goals have prevented the PRP 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 human rights abuses, corruption, vigilantism and extremism. Without parliament passing a new police law, any progress on reform, however marginal, is subject to rapid reversal.

The police need resources to tackle internal threats and crime. They remain far better placed to handle counter-insurgency and terrorism threats than a military trained to fight external enemies. The international community should realise that helping the police rank and file, not just military and elite paramilitary forces, with training and technical assistance would pay counter-terrorism dividends. However, the Bangladesh government should not just improve training, increase financial support and eventually police numbers but also enact concrete organisational and political reforms. Political appointments must end; merit alone must determine postings, transfers, recruitment and promotions; the recommendations of police and the public for reform must be considered; and emphasis placed on the police serving and protecting citizens. 

The government must resist the temptation to use the police for political, partisan ends as it and its predecessors have in the past. The colonial era Police Act of 1861 is ill-suited to modern policing, and only a new law similar to Police Ordinance (2007), which would increase police accountability and operational neutrality, will equip the force with the tools necessary to function in a democratic society. A force that is professionally run, well trained, adequately paid and operationally autonomous will best ensure the security of their constituents and the government itself. Moreover successful police reform can only be sustained if it is linked to a judiciary that enforces the rule of law fairly and effectively to protect individual rights and assure citizen security. If the police continue to be used for political ends, the force may be damaged beyond repair at a great cost not only to Bangladesh’s citizens but also to the current and future elected governments.

Dhaka/Brussels, 11 December 2009

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