The traditional notion of development encompasses a set of economic development indices that can arguably create enabling conditions for the fulfilment of many economic and social rights. However, development thinkers have gradually embraced a broader definition of development that includes people’s civil and political rights. Nevertheless, some people, including politicians, continue to insist on a narrow definition that ignores or even denies the aspects of civil and political rights.
In recent years, several leaders including some from Bangladesh have been implicitly making an argument that some rights are more important than the others. For instance, in an interview with The New York Times in December 2018, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina argued that, “If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights. What the opposition is saying, or civil society or your NGOs—I don’t bother with that.” This is indeed a very contentious position on the question of what development means.
The real question one may ask though is: does development only mean progress on some economic and social indices? Is the concept distinct from civil and political rights? Those who define development as an economic concept argue that there are countries that are making breath-taking economic progress, thereby improving many economic and social entitlements of their citizens—even if they restrict civil and political rights. It’s a popular line among the Bangladeshi political class. The countries that are usually referred to this category, China foremost among them, are outliers. Many more countries that systematically deny civil and political rights could not develop economically.
However, the problem with this argument is a question of definitions. The traditional concept of development mainly focuses, narrowly, on economic aspects, with an emphasis on growth, median income, consumption and other economic indices. Since the early 1990s, however, the mainstream discourse of development gradually observed a paradigmatic shift—broadening to include notions of social justice, human development, human rights and well-being. In his seminal work Development as Freedom (1999), leading development thinker Amartya Sen redefined development as an idea that “consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.” Together with Sen, academics, experts, and development thinkers have also embraced this broader definition, one that has since influenced the United Nations, many governments, non-government organisations, and other multilateral agencies. For instance, the Sustainable Development Goals, which Bangladesh and other countries explicitly accepted, include political freedoms as one of the key development goals (SDG 16).
As development now becomes an inclusive concept consisting both of elements of material progress and those that are needed for the realisation of human agency, politicians and leaders must step up and commit themselves to a development agenda that is both inclusive and meaningful. This is necessary to respect the concepts of human rights, as reflected in international standards. Any cherry-picking of the idea of development to serve a partisan political purpose would constitute an abandonment of the human rights commitment.
There are implications when leaders compartmentalise development to a set of economic objectives disregarding the political freedom aspects. When citizens are not free to hold an opinion, to express it, or to organise to press their demands, they lose their human agency—their capacity to make choices and pursue them. In the absence of a functioning human agency and protected civil and political rights, institutions of accountability are likely to suffer, for their mandate would be redefined to protect their arbitrary powers instead of protecting people’s human rights. This corrodes the rule of law. And with this corrosion, several important aspects of economic development, which are directly related to economic, social and cultural rights—for example, the rights to education, health, and livelihood—are likely to be affected. There may be outliers, but these are the most probable outcomes.
There is a growing sign that this may be manifesting in Bangladesh in different forms. Civil and political rights in the country have been eroded in the recent past. For example, since October 2018, according to media reports, nearly 400 people were indicted under the newly enacted Digital Security Act 2016—merely for expressing their opinions on Facebook and other social media platforms. It’s a draconian law that criminalises the right to freedom of expression, and it must be amended.
The continuous retreat of the civil and political liberties regime in several countries, including in Bangladesh, and the inability of the system, especially the institutions of accountability, to arrest the drift may be a sign that the restrictions on civil and political liberties are taking their toll on the system. For instance, the National Human Rights Commission’s attempts to seek clarification on 112 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings between 2012 and 2016 did not even elicit a response from the authorities in Bangladesh. This lack of accountability is the result of people’s voices being restricted, leaving a lack of compulsion to act within.
In the current state, Bangladesh has much to reflect on. While Bangladesh should continue to strive to progress in economic and social spheres to advance rights to health, adequate standards of living and education, it must not create a false choice between development and freedom. The two are inseparable, more so for a country premised on an idea of a shared vision of freedom, equality, and justice. Politicians must not forget that the struggle for independence in 1971, in which three million lives were lost, was stirred by a demand—as the preamble to the Constitution says—for “a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens.” Bangladesh must hold true to these founding aspirations.
Sultan Mohammed Zakaria is a South Asia Researcher for Amnesty International. He tweets @smzakaria