Bangladesh Regional Mediation Community
Speaker: Neila Husain, Independent Researcher, Founder & Executive Director of Development and Peacebuilding Initiative of Bangladesh (DPIB)
The 80s and 90s in Bangladesh saw a sharp increase in armed violence throughout the country. Although the media repeatedly reported on political violence, campus violence, violent religious extremism, human trafficking, drug smuggling and extortions, this growing number of incidents remained largely unnoticed by politician and political parties. Since the country’s independence in 1971, illegal arms were crossing the border, enabled by corrupt politicians and corrupt law enforcement agencies.
For activists, raising the issue of illicit weapons proliferation with their government, at the same time judge and executioner, was taboo and risked jeopardizing their personal and professional life. Yet over the years, passionate champions emerged that broke down barriers and brought the issue all the way to the UN. Their strategy to gain political buy-in for restricting illegal arms trade into the country was to design a gradual approach that would prepare the parties, identify champions and find common ground around legislation sought to halt illegal arms trafficking.
A group of like-minded organizations and individuals, activists, peacemakers and researchers, decided to bridge the gap between CSO and bureaucrats to see if together progress could be achieve.
Realistic objectives: the group decided not to aim for such as a lofty goal as to stop violence in their country but instead to start with raising awareness about the impact of arms proliferation.
Insiders: key to generating buy-in was to involve government insiders who would have naturally trusting relationships with different ministries and would have the power and authority to invite them to the table. Because invitations came from within the government, the consultative process had the government’s official seal of approval. While they had little control over who the ministers would delegate, one by one each ministry agreed to attend. Participants were primarily bureaucrats, While not the power-brokers, they were close enough to the politicians and were the policy writers in the government.
Framing the discussion: to diminish the fear corrupt politicians may have had of being exposed, the roundtables were framed as academic exercises involving information sharing about data collected by CSO, rather than a condemnation or an opportunity for finger pointing.
Preparation: facilitators prepared for every eventuality prior the dialogue, i.e. walk-outs, outbursts, accusations, sensitive questions, threats, none of which occurred and the government bureaucrats and political parties in attendance were surprisingly receptive. Those in a state of denial came around and many were spurred to act. Also surprising was the change in perception that CSO had of their government, happily noticing that they found more allies then spoilers than they had initially envisioned.
Dialogue sequencing: the group decided to approach the problem by engaging multiple actors at various levels of Bangladesh society, including government institutions, members of parliaments, security agencies, CSO, donors, international organizations and the media. They designed a dialogue process that started with generating national support before taking on a regional approach and bringing in countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka into the discussion. This allowed them to establish credibility and legitimacy for their work.
The national attention generated created enough pressure so that Bangladesh became the first South Asian country to sign, although it is not yet ratified, the UN Arms Trade Treaty . The government has thus far been in full support of a strong treaty and agrees that such a framework is required to combat illicit trafficking of conventional weapons. The relationship between CSO and their government has been strengthened; a recent statement from Bangladesh's deputy permanent representative to the UN suggested that non-government actors could be a catalyst for achieving treaty objectives through advocacy and mobilizing public support. Furthermore, the taboo of openly discussing the impact of illegal arms has been broken. The government has invited activists to attend press conferences when arms are seized, as well as conduct joint research on the issue. Government officials who retired from their position continue to remain active in this area.
The challenge ahead for CSO is to see their government move beyond the rhetoric and establish a set of robust and legally-binding policies. This will not be an easy feat given that the outcome of the negotiations largely depends on the cooperation of those who profit most from the lucrative weapons industry.
The perception that security remains the domain of the state still gives CSO a small space to maneuver.
In the context of Bangladesh, armed violence continues to be an ever-prevalent threat to economic and social development. The presence of political and religious extremist groups, human trafficking, drug smuggling and small arms are all concerns that should sway public opinion in favor of a 'bullet-proof' treaty.
In this multi-track approach to addressing illegal arms trade, there remains a long way to go. At the very least, the ubiquity of small arms should persuade citizens to speak out. For local activists, their next steps are clear. At the track-I level, it is to continue to move legislation forward that will restrict the amount of weapons entering the country and have their government ratify the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). At the local level, the focus will be on bridging the gap between local communities and local law enforcement.
Arms trade is a very lucrative business, but communities are ready for change and multiplying the number of mediators who can facilitate these life changing discussions is a strategy that CSO want to continue to build on.
 In an effort to stop transfers of arms that circumvent existing international law, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution entitled “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.” An overwhelming majority of member states, including Bangladesh, voted in favor of the ATT resolution in 2009, paving the way for multilateral negotiations.