Twelve international human rights organisations have demanded that members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force in Bangladesh, be banned from deployments to the peacekeeping missions.
In a letter to the United Nations, they have called for an in-depth review of the agency's role following the US sanctions in December last year.
Signed by the rights groups, the letter, made public on the Human Rights Watch website on Thursday, has been sent privately to Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix.
The signatory organisations include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Asian Human Rights Commission, International Federation for Human Rights, Advocates for Human Rights, World Organisation Against Torture, Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and six others, reads an HRW press release.
The department of peacekeeping operations, however, is yet to provide a formal response to the letter, which was sent over two months ago on 8 November 2021.
"If Secretary General Guterres is serious about ending human rights abuses by UN peacekeepers, he will ensure that units with proven records of abuse like the Rapid Action Battalion are excluded from deployment," said Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights.
"The evidence is clear. Now, it is time for the UN to draw a line," he added.
"The deployment of members of the RAB in peacekeeping operations reinforces a message that grave human rights abuses will not preclude one from service under the UN flag and increases the chances of human rights abuses being committed in UN missions," United Nations Director at Human Rights Watch Louis Charbonneau noted in the press release.
"The UN should send a clear signal to host and troop-contributing countries that abusive units will not be part of the UN."
According to the HRW media release, human rights organisations have documented widespread RAB abuses following which UN human rights experts voiced concerns about allegations that members of the unit are engaged in torture, enforced disappearances, and other human rights violations.
Earlier in March 2021, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, "Allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Rapid Action Battalion have been a long-standing concern."
In its concluding observations during Bangladesh's 2019 review of its obligations under the Convention against Torture, the Committee against Torture stated that it is "concerned at reports that personnel that have served with the Rapid Action Battalion have frequently been deployed for services with United Nations peace missions".
The press releases noted that the UN Committee against Torture recommended Bangladesh government "to establish an independent vetting procedure, with appropriate UN guidance, for all military and police personnel proposed for deployment in UN peace missions and ensure that no person or unit implicated in the commission of torture, extrajudicial killing, disappearances or other serious human rights violations is selected for service".
On 5 December, the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances voiced concerns stating that "members of the RAB would be eligible to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, without any previous investigation into their alleged involvement in the commission of human rights abuses or a thorough vetting process". The Working Group also said officers involved in, or willing to tolerate, abuses "appear to be promoted and rewarded within the Bangladesh security and law enforcement forces".
Later, on 10 December, the United States government-designated RAB as a "foreign entity that is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse", under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The US State Department imposed sanctions on RAB and seven of its former and current officials, including the current Inspector General of Police (IGP) and former RAB director general (DG) Benazir Ahmed.
Benazir Ahmed, who has a long history of employment with the UN. He served as director general of the RAB from 2015 to 2019 – a period when there were 136 reported extrajudicial executions and 10 enforced disappearances – allegedly by officers under his command. During this time, former UN Under-Secretary-General Herve Ladsous appointed him as an expert member of an independent review team for an "External Review of the Functions, Structure, and Capacity of the UN Police Division."
In a television interview, the former RAB chief said the US sanctions were based on "false and fabricated lies", adding that people calling for a ban on RAB from UN peacekeeping are "trying to embarrass our government and our country."
The HRW further noted that the Bangladesh government, instead of addressing the concern in a positive light, responded to the announcement of US sanctions with denials and retaliation against human rights defenders and victims' families.
Families of victims of enforced disappearance have reported that officers are showing up at their homes, threatening them, and forcing them to sign false statements that their family member was not forcibly disappeared and that they had intentionally misled the police, the HRW said.