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RAB intrusion into UN peacekeeping

Abdullah Yousuf : Editor In Chief: Rapid Response Battalion, once a Bangladeshi enforcer, now entrusted as United Nations peace guardians. Bangladesh, regrettably known for its high corruption rates in South Asia, faces the unsettling presence of an unofficial state-affiliated enforcement unit. The abysmal human rights track record of the RAB is no secret. In 2014,

Abdullah Yousuf : Editor In Chief: Rapid Response Battalion, once a Bangladeshi enforcer, now entrusted as United Nations peace guardians. Bangladesh, regrettably known for its high corruption rates in South Asia, faces the unsettling presence of an unofficial state-affiliated enforcement unit.

The abysmal human rights track record of the RAB is no secret. In 2014, Human Rights Watch labelled the unit as a “death squad” and has since advocated for its dissolution. This sentiment was echoed by the US State Department in 2018 when the unit failed to meet the stringent human rights vetting standards outlined in the Leahy laws, rendering it ineligible for US security assistance. The gravity of the unit’s transgressions became further evident in December 2021, as the US Department of Treasury imposed Global Magnitsky sanctions on six top leaders of the RAB, citing their alleged involvement in egregious human rights violations. Even within the United Nations, an independent panel of experts on enforced or involuntary disappearances highlighted reports of the RAB’s complicity in such grave crimes as early as 2017. These condemnations underscore the urgent need for decisive action to address systemic human rights abuses and ensure accountability within Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies.

n April 2023, a ground-breaking joint investigation conducted by Netra News and Deutsche Welled brought to light the harrowing accounts of two courageous RAB whistle-blowers. These former commanders of the unit bravely shed light on the organization’s systematic methods of executing and abducting individuals, implicating the highest echelons of government involvement in certain instances. Their testimonies unveiled the dark underbelly of state-sanctioned violence and underscored the urgent need for comprehensive reforms to dismantle entrenched structures of impunity and ensure justice for victims of human rights abuses in Bangladesh.

Despite the avalanche of damning evidence and the damning moniker of being labelled a “death squad,” former RAB officers managed to evade scrutiny and exploit a fractured vetting process to secure positions in lucrative UN peacekeeping missions abroad. This is primarily because the UN relies on the troop-contributing country’s government to screen out human rights violators from such deployments — a mechanism that experts contend is deeply flawed. This systemic loophole not only jeopardizes the integrity of peacekeeping operations but also undermines the UN’s commitment to upholding human rights standards on a global scale. Urgent reforms are imperative to rectify this glaring oversight and restore faith in the credibility and efficacy of UN peacekeeping initiatives.

On a radiant August morning in 2022, amidst the tranquil landscape of the Central African Republic’s north-western region, a dedicated 187-member Bangladeshi peacekeeping contingent convened at their camp. This nation, scarred by the wounds of prolonged civil conflict, found solace in the unwavering commitment of these peacekeepers. Lizbeth Cullet, a venerable civilian figure within the UN peacekeeping mission, traversed the crimson earth with a sense of reverence. As the Bangladeshi troops stood resolute, presenting their guard of honour, Cullet, adorned with a wealth of experience in human rights advocacy, embarked on a poignant journey. She bestowed upon several soldiers the prestigious UN medal, an emblem of velour and sacrifice in service to the “most afflicted and marginalized” communities.

One of the honourees, Major Masud R. from the Bangladesh Army, stood among the distinguished recipients. Unbeknownst to Cullet, Major Masud bore a contentious past. Prior to his deployment to the Central African Republic, he had served in the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an esteemed yet controversial Bangladeshi police unit. Accusations of grave human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, shrouded the RAB’s legacy. Within this unit, Major Masud held a prominent position in the Intelligence Wing, notorious for its ruthless interrogation methods. These techniques ranged from hanging detainees upside down to waterboarding, beatings, and administering electric shocks to sensitive areas of the body.

An investigation in 2023 unveiled a troubling reality: the deployment of Major Masud was not an anomaly but part of a systemic issue. Shockingly, over 100 Bangladeshi military and police officers with ties to the RAB were identified as participants in UN peacekeeping missions. Even more alarming, at least 40 of these deployments occurred within the last five years alone. This revelation underscored a critical need for rigorous vetting processes and heightened scrutiny to ensure the integrity and credibility of peacekeeping operations.

The transition from donning the all-black uniform of the RAB to wearing the iconic blue helmet of a UN peacekeeper serves as a stark reminder of a deeply flawed vetting process. This process, lamentably, permits individuals with troubling histories of human rights violations to partake in peacekeeping missions designed to protect vulnerable civilian populations in areas afflicted by conflict. It unveils a systemic failure to uphold the principles of accountability, integrity, and respect for human dignity within the framework of international peacekeeping endeavours.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, succinctly captured the paradox at play: deploying military and police officers with a history of abuse to safeguard endangered civilian populations fundamentally undermines the very essence of peacekeeping. This contradiction highlights a critical failure in the mission’s core principles, one that warrants urgent attention and reform to restore the integrity and effectiveness of peacekeeping operations worldwide.

The transition from the notorious RAB to peacekeeping roles has left some former officers grappling with the haunting memories of the atrocities they either committed or witnessed. One such individual is whistle-blower, now deployed on a peacekeeping mission in an African nation. In a courageous act of conscience, he has recorded a video confession, shedding light on the dark truths that continue to haunt him and challenging the narrative of impunity that has long shrouded his past. This powerful testimony serves as a stark reminder of the human cost of unchecked violence and underscores the urgent need for accountability and reform within both national and international institutions.

The officer recounted specific details of the killings and abductions he was involved in, as stated in his statement.Describing a brutal killing, he recounted the blood and brain fragments that sprayed onto his uniform when the bullet hit the victim’s skull.

Moreover, the whistle-blower isn’t alone in transitioning from a RAB officer to a peacekeeper after being involved in disturbing abuses. There are approximately 100 peacekeepers who were previously part of the Rapid Action Battalion.

Among the UN peacekeepers, two former RAB officers, Major Nayeem A. and Major Hasan T., have been identified. They were accused of either directly participating in or holding command responsibility for severe abuses prior to their deployment on peacekeeping missions

Both officers held influential roles as deputy directors in RAB’s Intelligence Wing and stand accused of directly participating in or sharing command responsibility for serious human rights violations. These include enforced disappearances and torture.

Press reports linked Nayeem A. to the enforced disappearance of three men in 2016 during his tenure as a commander of a RAB company in northern Bangladesh. Subsequently, in the following year, he was reassigned to the Intelligence Wing at the RAB Headquarters in Dhaka. Rising through the ranks, between 2017 and 2019, he ascended to the position of deputy director within the wing. By 2022, he was serving in MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Described by a former colleague as one of the most influential officers within the Intelligence Wing, Hasan T. played a pivotal role in overseeing the unit’s surveillance operations. He was responsible for maintaining the organization’s infamous digital surveillance infrastructure, allegedly utilized to facilitate abductions and extrajudicial killings. Given his senior position, he potentially shared command responsibility or had knowledge of the operations at two notorious torture chambers: one at the RAB headquarters near Dhaka airport and another at the RAB-1 headquarters in Uttara, as noted by his former colleague’

An enthusiastic runner in his free time, Major Hasan utilizes a fitness tracking app to log his jogging sessions, and we managed to locate his profile on the app. In November 2020, he shared a selfie taken in front of the RAB headquarters during a half-marathon. Fast forward one year to November 2021, he was spotted jogging along Gamal Abdel Nasser Street in the city of Bangui, where he was deployed to serve in MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic.

In an official statement, the UN’s Department of Peace Operations (DPO) confirmed the assignments of Major Nayeem A. to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Major Hasan T. to the Central African Republic. However, they highlighted a discrepancy concerning Major Hasan’s date of birth

However, the DPO did not find any record of Major Masud R. in their database, despite UN video footage and photographs capturing a senior UN official awarding him a medal during an August 2022 ceremony in the Central African Republic. Additionally, the office mentioned that it does not track the unit-wise employment histories of peacekeepers in their respective home countries, thus making it impossible to confirm how many RAB members have served in peacekeeping missions.

The UN secretariat does not receive detailed information about the professional history of contingent members from former military or police units. Therefore, it’s unable to confirm how many contingent members, deployed by a specific member state, have served with specific units in that member state,” wrote a spokesperson for the DPO.

In its ‘Concluding observations on the initial report of Bangladesh’ in 2019, the UN’s Committee against Torture expressed serious concerns regarding reports of torture, arbitrary arrests, unacknowledged detention, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings by the RAB. The committee underscored the lack of accountability for these violations and the prevailing legal impunity enjoyed by the forces. Consequently, it called for an independent vetting procedure for all military and police personnel chosen for UN peace missions. The committee recommended that ‘no person or unit implicated in the commission of torture, extrajudicial killing, disappearances, or other serious human rights violations’ be selected for service.

Despite the recommendations of the committee, the UN still relies on Bangladesh for the human rights screening and vetting process of officials deployed in peacekeeping operations.

As far as I’ve observed, everyone from RAB seems to transition to [UN] peacekeeping,” remarked one of the two RAB commanders who spoke to us in 2023

Another whistle-blower shed light on the underlying reasons for this trend, explaining, “RAB and the Bangladesh Army are distinct entities. Unless there’s documented communication from RAB to the Bangladesh Army regarding human rights violations, it won’t affect the career trajectory of an army officer, irrespective of their actions during their tenure in RAB.

The RAB doesn’t engage in direct recruitment; instead, it draws its members from the existing workforce of various security forces, primarily from military and police units.

In response to our inquiries, the UN peacekeeping spokesperson stated that troop-contributing countries furnish pertinent data on contingent personnel, encompassing both personal and professional information. According to the spokesperson, this certification fulfils the prerequisites for human rights screening of the personnel.

The spokesperson further emphasized that the Bangladesh government had certified Nayeem A. and Hasan T., affirming that they “had not committed, or were alleged to have committed, violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law

He acknowledged that the UN lacks the resources to thoroughly review the information. Meenakshi Ganguly of HRW drew a parallel, likening this situation to “asking an abusive government to determine whether an officer was abusive or not.

Over the past decade, RAB has played a pivotal role in supporting Bangladesh’s authoritarian government, headed by most organised man slater Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in consolidating power.

In 2023, a former RAB commander disclosed, ‘The decision to target a political figure would typically originate from the Ministry of Home Affairs, indicating that the minister issued such directives. If the home minister has given such an order, it’s highly improbable that the prime minister of Bangladesh was unaware of it.

We reached out to several current and former UN officials to discuss the matter on the record. Among them, only Andrew Gilmour, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, agreed to speak, and he forthrightly acknowledged the shortcomings.

If I were still with the UN, I doubt I could be this candid,” remarked Gilmour. “We receive troops that are often not very effective and some that are quite brutal.

The former UN Assistant Secretary-General emphasized that due to the limited number of countries willing to deploy troops for perilous peacekeeping missions, troop-contributing states hold considerable influence over the United Nations regarding the implementation of an independent vetting process.

Nonetheless, the UN’s failure not only rewards probable abusers with comparatively generous compensation but also jeopardizes an evolving, albeit infrequent, yet profoundly impactful channel of accountability for transgressions perpetrated by security forces in Bangladesh.

In December 2021, the United States government imposed targeted financial and other sanctions against RAB officials with specific allegations of committing or bearing command responsibility for severe abuses. The immediate outcome was significant: Bangladeshi human rights defenders have since reported a notable decline in the instances of alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by the RAB and other security forces. Notably, the United States is a substantial contributor to the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations, having provided over $1.37 billion, or 25% of the total funds allocated for these missions in 2024 alone. This signifies that while the US has been advocating for accountability from RAB on a bilateral level, it is also indirectly facilitating the deployment of RAB members through UN missions simultaneously.



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