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Monday, August 26, 2013

Religion and after: Bangladeshi identity since 1971

Angry Islamist demand for Islamic state governed by controversial Sharia law, which subjugates women

Secularism was one of the cornerstones of Bengali nationalism, but its spirit was enforced only by pen and paper. How can demands to ban religion from politics be satisfied?

The United Nations categorizes Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim democracy. Meanwhile, the current Foreign Minister called Bangladesh a secular country. She defined Bangladesh to be a "non-communal country” with a “Muslim majority population”. The Foreign Minister further added that the concept of a moderate Muslim democracy cannot be applied in the case of Bangladesh because it fought its war of independence on basis of the ideal of secularism. For Bangladesh, embracing religion or creating a secular identity has been a major contestation in the creation of its national identity. Identity questions for Bangladesh still stand: is it a country of secular Bengalis or Muslim Bangladeshis?

This split personality of Bangladesh confounds the international observer. For an outsider, it makes perfect sense to call it a moderate Muslim democracy as a Muslim majority population lives in a country that recognizes Islam as the state religion. Since the Shahbag movement has erupted with the demands of the death penalty for the war criminals, international media remains substantially silent about it. Perhaps one of the reasons could be their inability to comprehend why a population of Muslim origin are angered over using religion (read Islam) for political purposes? As we look at the issues brought forward by the Shahbag movement, we need to analyse it from a historical perspective. We are not talking about redressing the wound that was created 42 years back; rather how it was ‘silenced’ to maximize narrow political gains for the major political parties of the country.

'Secularism' in independent Bangladesh
Many point to the 1947 division of the subcontinent on the basis of the Two Nation theory with ‘religion’ at its core as the principle factor that tied religion to politics in this region. It was primarily the overwhelming support of the Muslims of Bengal in the 1946 election that decided the fate of the Two Nation theory. But does this mean that people of East Bengal supported the Two Nations theory with a religious fervour? The answer is quite the opposite. Historians have shown that support in East Bengal was mobilized with the aim of economic emancipation from West Bengal. The people of East Bengal gathered under the umbrella of Fazlul Haque’s leadership, who provided a non-communal approach to the issue of Hindu-Muslim relations and brought the economic issues to the forefront. As research shows, the massive support coming from the rural areas of Bengal for the dream of Pakistan was aimed at resolving their basic ‘dal-bhat’ (rice-lentil: considered Bengali people’s basic food at that period) problem. Islam was not the primary political mode of thought in Bengal nor was able to present itself as an ‘ideological’ alternative to the existing political thoughts.

However, the Two Nation Theory, formulated on the basis of Hindu-Muslim division, turned out to truly be a theory of two nations as it depicted East and West Pakistan as inherently different from each other. They do not understand why we subaltern Muslims do not agree to speak Urdu. They do not understand why we Muslims are mesmerized with the Hindu poet Tagore. While students protested Jinnah’s proclamation that, “Urdu, and only Urdu shall be the national language of Pakistan”, the seed of a new nation was sown as early as 1948 on the campus of the University of Dhaka. The Bengali Language Movement gave birth to the idea of a new nation, within the geographic border of former East Pakistan.

While secularism was one of the cornerstones of Bengali nationalism, its spirit was enforced only by pen and paper but not in practice - apprehension that secularism could be easily misinterpreted as atheism. Even while secularism was preached in the pre-1971 period, Article 2 of the Awami League’s election manifesto in 1970 stated that no law would be enacted against the dictums of the Quran and the Sunnah. Similarly, political leader Maulana Bhashani declared, “we want food and we want clothes but we do not want them excluding Allah”. Such contradictions extended far. Upon his return from Pakistan via London in 1972, at the one hand, Sheikh Mujib declared himself as a Muslim and Bangladesh as the second largest Muslim country as secularism was embedded as one of the four principles of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Secularism versus religiosity
History shows that there was a public fear and rejection of secularism back in 1972. A public procession was carried out against it on the streets of Dhaka that chanted “Joy Bangla joy-heen, Lungi chere dhuti pin” on the day of the formal acceptance of the constitution. This particular slogan stated that the traditional Awami League slogan of Joy Bangla, i.e., victory to Bangladesh, became meaningless in independent Bangladesh and would be devoid of ‘victory’. Moreover, the traditional Bengali Muslim men’s attire lungi would be replaced by traditional Hindu men’s attire dhuti due to adoption of secularism as a state principle. The ultimate failure of the government, alongside rampant corruption, was to give in to these Islamic emphases by the regime of the Awami League in an attempt to regain its lost popularity. Simultaneously, as a reaction to the Awami League’s pen and paper commitment to ‘secularism’, the alternative was to embrace ‘religion’ in its fullest form and was manifested in Bangladeshi nationalism.

While the Shahbag movement is asking for a fair trial of war criminals, it cannot remain confined by only banning Jamaat-e-Islami’s politics or overall politics based on religion. Rather, the whole issue of secularism versus religiosity has to be taken into consideration to redress the way politicians have misused religion. We have not forgotten the electoral slogan of the Awami League, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami during the 1996 election: La ilaha illallha, Naukar malik tui Allah (There is no God but Allah, and Allah is the Owner of boat); La ilaha illalha, Dhaner shishe Bismillah (There is no God but Allah, and Allah willing, vote for the paddy sheaf); Vote diley pallay, Khushi hobe Allah (Allah would be pleased if you vote for scale). It is a country where an electoral campaign still starts from Sylhet, by visiting Islamic shrines and seeking blessings of the Pirsfor a good result in election.

We have changed our traditional age-old greetings from ‘Khuda Hafiz’ to ‘Allah Hafiz’ with the excuse that ‘Allah’ is Arabic while ‘Khuda’ originates from Persian. We do not even know or probably do not even care about the fact that ‘hafiz’, an original Persian word and etymologically derived from Arabic ‘hifz’, remains attached with the phrase. But we are happy to replace Khuda with Allah with an aim to prove ourselves as true Muslims. Is that a true representation of Bangladesh, of our national culture? On a similar note, in any public gathering, it is excruciating to see how the sari, the traditional Bengali attire for women, is disappearing and is being increasingly replaced by salwar-kamiz. While the younger generation have embraced the latter with the excuse of it being more manageable and convenient, the older generation is much more direct in expressing how the sari is ‘unIslamic’ dress that reveals significant female body parts while salwar-kamiz does not.

Our whole national culture is in transition. Otherwise why is YouTube still banned in Bangladesh? Why is it necessary for the editor of a renowned newspaper to apologize to the Khatib of Baitul Mukarram over the publication of a cartoon that allegedly insulted religious sentiments? Not so long ago, Facebook was also banned in the country under the same accusation. Scholar Rafiuddin Ahmed indeed pointed it out very succinctly, “a Bengali Muslim may have seen himself primarily as a ‘Muslim’ the other day, as a ‘Bengali’ yesterday, and a ‘Bengali Muslim’ today, depending on objective conditions, but on none of these occasions did his thoughts and his idea of destiny become separated from his territorial identity”.

Secularism as a top-down approach
The fact remains that secularism cannot be imposed from the top, merely as a state directive. The term secularism itself was coined and introduced in the English vocabulary in 1851 by George Jacob Hollyake in order to create a conscious difference between secularism and atheism. It is the same tension that we face in our country right now. Moreover when secularism is imposed as a top-down approach, it looks like nothing short of an attempt to ‘catch up’ with the West or try to prove to the West that “look, we have denounced religion; we are modern too!” This is a typical crisis that non-Western societies face: how to define themselves as modern so the West understands. But what is overlooked here is that secularism cannot just be imposed as an ‘add and stir’ method, for non-Western societies have their own uniqueness to add both to the concepts of modernity and secularism.

There is no singular way to be modern; there is no singular way to be secular, especially not by incorporating it into the Constitution while ignoring the drastic changes in the social fabric of a country. Moreover, countless research shows that while a non-Western society is being modernized, it does not shake off its religious legacies and historical experiences. Rather its own values, culture and religion formulate the core of a resistance identity in response to the intrusion of Westernization. Secularism therefore cannot be perceived from only mainstream and liberal conceptions as it is presented through the Western lens.

As one scholar has put it, 1971 shows that Bangladesh rejected the Pakistani interpretation of fundamentalist Islam but this did not mean that Bangladesh has rejected Islam from its own identity. The inability of the elites to understand this fact has trapped them into the secular-religious divide. Schendel has rightly pointed out that the post-independent, or first leaders of Bangladesh failed to deliver the dreams of nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy based on a vernacular cultural model. Such failure essentially led towards creating the dichotomy between the religious and the secular and between anti-1971 and pro-1971.

There is no legal way to tackle the rise of religiosity in Bangladesh. Instead, the failure to acknowledge these silent ‘religious’ transitions, where political parties are interested only in the bigger share of the pie using religion, will only add to the existing tension and divide the unity of the country further between the religious and the secular. Instead we must continue to implore why we are rapidly turning more religious than before, and why consider it a solemn duty to continuously project this religious identity.

First published in Open Democracy, 19 April 2013

Lailufar Yasmin is a doctoral student at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia and teaches in International Relations at University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her research interest includes secularism, IR theory and Islam

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Leaked letter: Mamata govt backed Bangladesh border deal it’s now opposing


No one knows why Mamta Banerjee is backing out on an agreement that would strengthen the hands of India’s allies.
Last week, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid stood up in the upper house of Parliament to place the Constitution (119th) Amendment Bill 2013 for ratification-sparking off the kind of ruckus rarely seen in Parliament over a foreign policy issue.

Assom Gana Parishad member Birendra Prasad Baishya trooped into the well of the house with placards in hand. He had the support of the Trinamool Congress with, with Derek O Brien asking the chair to allow Baishya to speak. The Minister was unable to introduce the Bill and Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien had to adjourn the house for ten minutes. When Rajya Sabha reassembled, the Chair said the matter was to be taken up at a later time. But more drama ensued with TMC members joining the lone AGP warrior Baishya in the well. BJP too came out in support of the protesters. The uproar ended only once Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Shukla announced-“the Bill has been deferred .”

The Bill in concern, if ratified by two thirds majority in both houses of Parliament, would bring into effect the 1974 India-Bangladesh land boundary agreement and the draft protocol agreed upon by the two countries. With a common boundary of 4097.6 kms, the Bill when implemented would settle disputes over demarcation at various places along the Indo-Bangla border.

What is interesting is that exactly two years ago – on 20th of August 2011 -then Chief Secretary of West Bengal, Samar Ghosh sent a written consent to then Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai on the issue. The letter signed by Samar Ghosh said-“I hereby convey the State Government’s approval of the draft Protocol.”

When asked about the same, Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member Sukhendu Shekhar Roy told Network18, “West Bengal government and Mamata Banerjee should have been consulted before placing the bill in House. The Centre has, however, held official talks neither with our chief minister or our officials.”

He added, “I am not aware of any letter of consent given by the state government. Even if there is one, discussions must have been held at some level other than the state government or our CM.”

Network18 has access to the letter, whose content Mr Roy forcefully denies. The letter No.176-CS/2011 was sent in official capacity from the office of the Chief Secretary of West Bengal on 20th of August 2011. Ms Banerjee had won a landslide victory in the month of May the same year- and in the next three months would have surely known about what her chief secretary was up to. Notably Samar Ghosh was given an extension of six months on completion of his tenure by Mamata government which was then a part of the UPA.

Speaking to Bangladesh News, Samar Ghosh confirmed-”I did consult Mamata Banerjee and she said we agree, so I conveyed the same to Ranjan Mathai.”

Trinamool Congress insists that ‘national interest’ cannot overrule ‘regional interest’ and by handing over 111 enclaves to Dhaka in exchange of 51 enclaves, New Delhi stands to lose strategic land.

Congress’s Pradeep Bhattacharya though argues “people in these enclaves are nobody’s citizens, and this process cannot linger. It is a humanitarian issue that must not be politicized. The Bengal government had earlier supported the bill, but why has Mamata-ji now done a U-turn is beyond our understanding.”

It is a question being asked in Delhi’s bureaucratic circles. Not to forget an already at unease with the bill BJP which looks a divided house on the issue. While senior leader and ex Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha has opposed the ratification of the bill on grounds of no consultation with the opposition and lack of consensus building. Another Former Foreign Minister of the BJP Jaswant Singh says, “There is no opposition to it.Let the bill first be introduced.”

It’s worth noting that during her Delhi visit in July this year, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni had met Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley to seek his support. A day after, reports suggested, Bangladeshi High Commissioner Tariq Azim had traveled to Ahmedabad to meet the BJP’s Chief Election Campaigner Narendra Modi on the same issue. Later on 8th of August Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accompanied by EAM Khurshid and NSA Shiv Shankar Menon briefed senior BJP Leaders LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley to address their concerns.

Despite opposition from the Bengal and Assam state units of the BJP, party headquarter seems to be now coming around on the bill. But it is the feisty Banerjee, who earlier managed to derail the Prime Minister’s attempt at Teesta water sharing agreement with Dhaka, is the new surprise hurdle on the way of the Land Boundary Agreement.

And with January 2014 elections in Bangladesh closing in, a pro-India Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can only hope that the failure of the agreement will not provide ammunition to her opponent Begum Khaleda Zia. Meanwhile, New Delhi is still waiting to hear why Mamata Banerjee chose to do a U- turn on a matter of international significance, even as it hopes to try and table this bill sometime again this week in the ongoing Monsoon session.

First published in August 24, 2013

Smita Sharma is the Associate Editor Foreign Affairs/Anchor for IBN7 News
Twitter id: @smita_sharma

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Who owns Bangladesh?

Photo: AFP
Women and property rights

AN IMPORTANT reason for Bangladesh’s remarkable progress in recent years has been investment in education of health and education, especially for women. Pick any of the standard measures of development—maternal health, female literacy and life expectancy—and you find that Bangladesh is beating India.

It is young women who stitch garments worth $20 billion in exports, women who own Grameen Bank, an embattled but Nobel-winning micro-lender, and women who have ruled the country as prime ministers since 1991—longer than men have managed, which might make Bangladesh unique in the history of the world’s republics.

Yet look at distribution of land by gender and you might be surprised. There is a very short answer to the question “Who owns Bangladesh?” Men do.

No one knows exactly how unequal the distribution of property is (the government does not disaggregate its statistics by gender). But there is agreement that the share held by women is absolutely tiny. In 1993, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that women in Bangladesh owned just 3.5% of the country’s agricultural land. Twenty years on, this share has almost certainly shrunk further, to perhaps as little as 2%.

Bangladesh’s legal system is secular on paper, but the areas of marriage, divorce, alimony and property inheritance are based on what is called personal law, which varies according to an individual’s or family’s religion. Muslim women are allowed to buy or be gifted property or access to khas land (fallow plots owned by the government), but the main route through which they acquire it is inheritance. (Following Hindu custom, Hindu and Buddhist women inherit nothing). The Islamic laws of inheritance are based on the local school of sharia, wherein a daughter is bequeathed only half what her brother inherits. Even a single generation of marriages and deaths does its bit to distribute land away from women. A widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s property if they have children and one-fourth if they do not.

But to concentrate on the unfairness of the inheritance laws would be to ignore the broad majority of women (and men)—approximately two-thirds of Bangladesh’s 160m people are landless. Imagine if seats on a public bus of the standard size were distributed in the same way that Bangladesh’s productive land is. The conductor would have reserved only a single seat for all the women who might board. But he would be holding no tickets at all for two additional busloads of people, left waiting at the kerb.

Often women do not claim any of their inheritance, leaving it in their brothers’ possession. Activists in Bangladesh call it the “good-sister syndrome”: hoping that the brother will look after his sister’s rights. In their experience, more often than not “the good brother does not reciprocate in the way the good sister anticipated”.

In a study titled “Women, land and power in Bangladesh" Jenneke Arens, a Dutch researcher, finds that sons and husbands are often at fault.
“Khadija, rich peasant widow, called me into her house. She was clearly upset: 'I inherited nine bigha (three acres) of land from my mama (uncle) who brought me up, but my sons have registered my land in their names, they took my fingerprint.”
The injustice has not gone unnoticed. There was a move towards a uniform family law in the early 1980s, one that would respect the rights of women and men equally, or at least less unequally. The Awami League (AL) of Sheikh Hasina pushed for it when it was in government in the late 1990s and between 2007 and 2008 an army-backed government drafted legislation to give women equal access, use and control of land.

Indeed in its 2008 election manifesto the AL, which holds office once again, had vowed to rectify “discriminatory laws [that are] against the interest of women”. But that item remained on the “to-do-list” of the same AL government that came to power after winning a landslide victory in late 2008. (It has however made some progress in other areas, such as protecting women from sexual harassment and violence.)

Various plans to change the inheritance laws have been met with violent protest by the Islamic right. It appears that even the AL government cannot afford to enforce the constitution in this matter; it calls for women to be recognised as having equal rights in every sphere of life. (The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is strategically aligned with the conservative right, does not bother in the first place.) “Politicians are afraid to touch religion because they are afraid of losing votes, says Khushi Kabir of Nijera Kori (“We do it ourselves”), an NGO that fights for the rights of landless people. The formation in 2011 of a fundamentalist group called Hefazat-e-Islam (“Protectors of Islam”) was a direct response to a plan for legislation which would ensure that all descendents inherit equal portions of an estate. And so the AL’s three-fourths majority has made little difference.

The prospects for change look gloomy. But, as Ms Kabir says, “with the exception of inheritance laws, we are much better off than Pakistan.” She points to some of Bangladesh’s relatively progressive policies, including some that favour augmenting women’s access to public land, as well as a judiciary that is much more sympathetic to women’s rights than Pakistan’s.

The government has also set in motion a project to digitise all of Bangladesh’s land records (the European Commission has chipped in €10m, or $13.3m). This will be very good, Ms Kabir thinks, because making the public records transparent would make women’s claim official. A small step towards making those greedy brothers behave better, but perhaps an important one.

First published in The Economist, August 20, 2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What's next for Islamist party after higher court barred to participate in election?

Islamist protest critics of Islam, Koran and Muhammad in London
Bangladesh's main Islamist party ponders its future after a High Court ruling that deemed its charter unconstitutional


Now that Jamaat-e-Islami has been disqualified from contesting in future elections, analysts are asking whether Bangladesh's leading Islamist party can regroup as a political force without resorting to further violence.

On August 1st, a three-member panel of the High Court declared Jamaat's registration as a political party illegal, because some sections of its charter go against the constitution and the 1972 Representation of the People Order (RPO).

Jamaat lawyers immediately appealed to the Supreme Court to stay the verdict, but the appeal was rejected on August 5th.

The relevant Jamaat charter passages stipulate that only Allah is sovereign, and the rules of Allah are the ultimate law. The constitution of Bangladesh, on the other hand, states that the people are sovereign, and the RPO bars registration of any party that may pose a threat to communal harmony.

Jamaat – believed to command around 10% of the popular vote – registered as a political party under newly-revised Election Commission (EC) guidelines in November 2008. Two months later, a leading Sufi group filed public interest litigation seeking to scrap Jamaat's registration.

Jamaat leaders and workers took to the streets and vandalised vehicles throughout Dhaka to protest the August 1st ruling, and called for yet another general strike on August 13th and 14th.

Critics of the ban say it is important that Islamists in Bangladesh have a stake in the democratic process. Marginalising them, they argue, will foster resentment and possible radicalisation.

"Scrapping the registration through judiciary is a wrong approach," Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party's (BNP) highest policy-making committee, told Khabar South Asia. "If they are stripped of their political rights, they are almost certain to resort to the path of violence for existence."

"Violence will not help them"
Yet there are avenues open for the group to re-enter politics, without resorting to violence, experts say.

The EC has hinted Jamaat could regain registration by making its party charter consistent with the constitution and the RPO, political analyst Nazim Kamran Chowdhury told Khabar.

Jamaat members could also join up with their major political ally, BNP, and attempt to re-register under a potential future BNP administration.

"In case of its failure to restore the registration as a political party under the present election commission, they are likely to contest under the BNP's banner in the next polls.

Then they would get registration afresh after installation of a reconstituted election commission," said Chowdhury.

"Violence will not help them," he added.

Syed Abdullah Md Taher, Jamaat's central executive committee member and secretary for foreign affairs, told Khabar the cancellation of its registration as a political party was aimed at blocking the party from contesting the next national elections, expected in January 2014.

"Keeping Jamaat away from the polls will, of course, create some 'imbalance' in politics," he said, without elaborating. He, however, insisted that Jamaat 'certainly' wanted to be in the political process, and does not believe in violence.

Taher declined to comment on whether his party launched attacks on law enforcers while protesting recent war crimes court verdicts against its party leaders.

Asked if Jamaat will re-register with the election commission, he said, "we will consider it".

Syed Ashraful Islam, general secretary of the ruling Awami League, told reporters his party has no intention of banning Jamaat's political activities. The registration issue, he said, would be settled by the court and the election commission – two independent bodies free from government influence, he said.

He agreed, however, that Jamaat's party charter had some provisions contradicting the country's founding principles. "They must amend their party charter in line with the constitution for getting registration as a political party," Islam added.

First published in Khabar South Asia, August 15, 2013

Bangladesh: Will Good Corporate Deeds Go Unpunished?

Garments workers, union activists protest unsafe workplace in front of garments owners association in Bangladesh capital

In the aftermath of horrific tragedy, you’d think any efforts to lessen the chance of recurrence would be welcome, especially efforts fueled by significant corporate resources.

No doubt the U.S.-based retailers,  including Walmart, Target, and Sears, that signed on to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety were realistic enough to expect some criticism of  their binding, five-year undertaking to improve labor conditions after April’s Rana Plaza building collapse in which 1,100 people died. (A fire in another factory killed 112 Bangladeshis in November.)

What they may not have expected, or even currently understand, is that by signing on, these companies have provided their adversaries, spearheaded by organized labor, with a potent weapon to advance a multifaceted anti-corporate strategy of which the situation in Bangladesh is just one part.

Indeed, labor groups like the UNI Global Union went on immediate counterattack, excoriating the agreement as essentially toothless and, for want of third-party monitoring, a “sham.” Meanwhile, in early July, 80 retail companies (only three of them American) signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to fund substantial safety improvements. The refusal of American companies to join the Accord was likewise excoriated, when, for instance, UNI spokespeople claimed that the provisions would only add two or three pennies to the cost of a tee-shirt.

I am persuaded that both labor and management share a heartfelt concern for the victims at Rana Plaza, and that both sides sincerely hope for effective remediation of the unsafe conditions that led to the tragedy. But that is where the comity ends. Labor seeks a united front to attack virtually all human rights issues across the board and around the world. By their lights, that purpose is disserved when Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs reassure the world that global corporations can be powerful agents of humane systemic change.

Post Rana Plaza, unions like UNI – a global federation launched in 2000 with more than 900 affiliated unions and 20 million members in 140 countries – have already achieved two fundamental strategic advantages. First, they have gotten the companies to compete in labor’s ballpark, to acknowledge responsibility, to play defense.

But second, they’ve set up the game so that CSR can be used against the corporations themselves. The signatories to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety would do well to reread Saul Alinsky, who wrote the book on how to make corporations choke on their own good intentions. As Alinsky says in Rules for Radicals, “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

By this code, no specific CSR provision will be good enough because the implicit strategy is to define CSR programs as self-serving, and as mere band aids. At the same time, if corporations do not join initiatives like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, it only proves their indifference.

Either way a company like Walmart loses as the balance of power continues to shift. Walmart, for one, has already felt some pain as a result of the unions’ focus on CSR, at least enough to encourage the opposition that they’re on the right track.

In July, two large European pension funds, PGGM and Mn Services, announced they’re no longer investing in Walmart because the company does not adhere to international labor conventions. The operative word is “international.” That’s how Walmart is growing and that’s how unions are growing.

It’s instructive that the funds were reportedly rebuffed by Walmart in their efforts to get the company to adopt International Labour Organizationconventions. Walmart may have left a communications void that union messaging ably filled. Of course global conventions are written for countries, not companies. One pension fund readily acknowledged that fact, but so what? “We only want to invest in companies with those standards,” said the firm’s head of responsible investment.

It’s hard to imagine these pullouts occurring without the union campaigns to create an environment in which companies like Walmart are constantly vulnerable. A May 2013 document by UNI’s Commerce Sector that’s come into our possession sheds further light on the strategic motives driving the Walmart campaign. It underscores Walmart’s plans “to increase its workforce to 3 million over the next five years, which represents a 36 percent increase from the current figure of 2.2 million workers.

The opportunities these numbers suggest are not lost on a labor movement that for years read about nothing except its own attrition. But it is not a kneejerk reaction to just one corporate spreadsheet. Globalization is organized labor’s strategic driver simply because that’s where the headcounts are.

From a historical standpoint, the targeting of Walmart feeds into a five-year plan formalized at UNI’s 2010 World Congress in Nagasaki. This time frame coincides tellingly with the accelerated controversy surrounding Walmart’s labor practices as well as the series of workplace tragedies of which Rana Plaza will sadly not be the last.

The anti-Walmart activities typify how the Nagasaki principles are being carried out in action. Among the interminable highlights in the UNI Commerce document: the 2012 launch of the UNI Walmart Global Union Alliance; the first-ever cross-union strike in Brazil; extremely aggressive use of “Twinning” via phone and skype for Walmart employees to communicate around the world; and a concerted use of social media with new communities like the Walmart Alliance Facebook Page.

Beyond tactics, the UNI Commerce document provides three crucial strategic takeaways for any company that is or will be intensively targeted.

First, the unions aren’t fighting guerilla war. They’re waging sustainable combat. If corporations want to fight back, they too must think long-term even while extinguishing whatever brush fires flare up on a daily basis. What, for example, is the long-term viability of a CSR plan? How do companies advance and build on the plan even as they fully anticipate that the unions will use whatever they do against them?

Second, the campaigns go well beyond specific labor issues. CSR is an open invitation to be judged by multiple tribunals focused on everything under the sun from antitrust to environmental. If a company wants to subsidize green construction projects, the union might want to know where it stands on Ecuadorian rainforests.

Accordingly, the UNI Commerce actions points include, for example, research into corruption. (Earlier this year, the union held a public hearing in El Salvador on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, specifically to encourage whistleblowers to come forward.) Everything is at play. In a document for a campaign targeting the leading global hotel chains, the union even wants to know revenue figures on in-room pay-per-view pornography.

Third, the unions have taken the fight inside the corporation. Their strategy plays out at shareholder meetings in the now-familiar form of investor activism. No wonder the UNI Commerce document specifically calls for “international delegations to attend annual shareholder meetings.”

An earlier (2004) UNI planning document that also came into our possession discloses the breadth of the campaign to influence both corporate governance and CSR at public companies. According to this document, the corporate governance “crisis takes unions closer into corporate power issues than ever before. It also sharpens ongoing CSR opportunities…. It makes possible…influential linkages between shareholders and other stakeholders – primarily workers and their unions. It widens “the agenda of workers’ participation in management…taking the unions’ public voice on environmental and broad social issues closer to the doors of corporate power” [both emphases added].

Rainforests, corruption, pornography – we’re a long way from Bangladesh and worker safety. Yet it’s been the genius of the labor movement to gather its diverse allies and spin just such a comprehensively interwoven net in which every knot is a potential focal point. They had to, in order to survive as an organized antagonist in the ongoing war of labor and management – a survival they see as essential for both humanitarian and business reasons.
In turn, corporations must be equally holistic, looking around and beyond every corner to identify issues that will shadow their brands and reputations in the years ahead. They cannot just build a fortress on the labor/employment front. In this global confrontation, not a single social, political, or legal issue is unimportant.

Their intent of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is noble, and the efforts they make will likely directly benefit those for whom they’re intended. If so, there is all the more reason for these corporations to carefully think through the unintended consequences – and the real possibility that every conversation about social problems will turn into a shouting match only the enemy can win.

First appeared in Forbes, August 12, 2013

Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, provides public relations and communications counsel to corporations and countries on multiple labor and human rights issues. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Activists Attempting to Push Abortion Drugs Into Pro-Life Bangladesh

Family Planning bare-foot health workers explain birth control pills

A researcher dedicated to bringing risky medical abortion to developing countries has set her sights on Bangladesh. Her new study demonstrates a plan to expand access to abortion pills by using misleading language and an unusual set of laws.

The study proposes redefining “menstrual regulation” to include medical as well as surgical methods.

Since the 1970s, “menstrual regulation” took advantage of a legal loophole in Bangladesh, which outlaws most abortions. After missing her period, a woman could undergo a uterine evacuation, ostensibly to induce her menstrual cycle. While the procedure was technically identical to an early-term abortion using a manual vacuum aspirator, it was not legally classified as an abortion unless a test confirmed the pregnancy first.

“Abortion remains a very sensitive topic in Bangladesh,” wrote Julie DaVanzo and Mizanur Rahman in an article on Matlab, a region that has been the focus of several studies on abortion and family planning. “In fact, many of the restrictions for MR [menstrual regulation], particularly its availability only before pregnancy is clinically confirmed, are to reinforce the perception of MR as something other than abortion.”

The new study reaffirms that any such perception is merely semantic. The method being tested is identical to the procedure for medical abortion, and the authors compare their results to those obtained using “this regimen in other settings.” In the other settings, no euphemisms for abortion were used.

Study coauthor Dr. Beverly Winikoff is a longtime champion of medical abortion. Her organization Gynuity led the effort to convince the World Health Organization to classify drugs that can be used for abortion as “essential medicines.”

Collaborating with Winikoff on the project were researchers from the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh. In addition to studying diarrheal disease, the group focuses heavily on reproductive health. According to its website, “One of the greatest challenges in Bangladesh is population control,” and their efforts to reduce births range from the distribution of “behavioral change materials” to this recent study aimed at increasing the acceptability of medical abortion by another name.

While the study concluded that medical abortions would be feasible in Bangladesh, health care providers in focus groups raised concerns about drug quality and medical oversight given the lack of regulation of pharmacies and the widespread availability of drugs without prescription. They also noted that the trial did not look at rural areas.

A doctor who reviewed the study points out that of 651 study participants, 22 were lost to follow-up after being given the drugs. “Are they dead?” asked Dr. Donna Harrison. “Who knows?”

Today, “menstrual regulation” remains largely unique to Bangladesh, a product of the majority-Muslim nation’s willingness to turn a blind eye to early abortion while appearing to enact tough restrictions on it overall. Abortion promoters in the early 1970s saw its potential for gaining unwitting acceptance of abortion methods. Gynecologist Geoffrey Davis posited in 1972 that the euphemism could have a worldwide impact.

“Perhaps one of the greatest contributions that somebody could make to this is a new term that would do for abortion what “family planning” did for “birth control,” Davis wrote.  “If we could call this something more acceptable than abortion, we could get the public’s attitude changed a little faster.”

First appeared in, August 12, 2013

LifeNews Note: Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bangladesh’s volatile politics: The battling begums

The pendulum swings away from Sheikh Hasina and her government

AHEAD of the festival of Eid-al-Fitr on August 9th-11th, the two quarrelling heads of Bangladesh’s political dynasties exchanged greetings cards. But the outward signs of peace between the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, and the opposition leader, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), mean little. A European diplomat says he has just sent two cables to his capital. The first discusses the growing chances of the League’s defeat in elections due by next January. The second is about the dynastic succession plans of the battling begums.

One political party is likely to be missing at the coming election. On August 1st the High Court ruled that the country’s biggest religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, is unfit to contest national polls because its charter puts God above democratic process. The court has cancelled Jamaat’s registration. A few months ago this might have sealed victory for the League, for Jamaat has been a crucial vote-winning ally for BNP.

Yet growing numbers now doubt whether the League can win a second consecutive term, and not only because no elected government has ever done so in Bangladesh. In early 2013 judgments by a flawed but popular court, investigating crimes committed by current Jamaat members during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, seemed to boost the nominally secular League, which revived the tribunal. Nearly all the leaders of Jamaat are likely to be sentenced, probably to death, by election day.

In response, the opposition framed the trials as a struggle between anti-Islamist forces and the pious. That paved the way for marches on Dhaka, the capital, by Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamic splinter group with fundamentalist demands. The second time they marched, security forces killed up to 50 of them. The message young men took back to their villages was that thousands had been slaughtered. Across the country, the effect on the government’s popularity has been devastating.

Ever since, the BNP has been in the ascendant. It thrashed the League in mayoral elections in June and July, notably in Gazipur in the industrial belt, hitherto one of the League’s safest constituencies.

In an attempt to reverse its fortunes, the government plans to raise wages for 4m garment workers, who are angry at its failure to make factories safe and to compensate relatives of more than 1,100 killed in a ghastly factory collapse in May. A wage rise could sway many voters, but factory bosses are likely to resist a deal. A push against party corruption would also boost Sheikh Hasina’s popularity. A good third of her MPs dare not visit their fiefs for fear of being lynched for treating their constituencies as cash tills. Yet no precedent exists for firing miscreants, and appointing credible candidates would probably split the party. As a last resort, Sheikh Hasina’s son and heir apparent, Sajeeb Wazed, was handed around for three weeks in July before flying back to the United States. At this point, he looks like a non-starter.

His dynastic counterpart, Tarique Rahman, Mrs Zia’s son, is wilier. He would jump on a plane from London tomorrow. His mother is in poor health and keen to pass power to her first-born. But he faces charges of corruption and money laundering in Bangladesh: Mr Rahman was instrumental in ensuring that the BNP’s last stint in power was a glorious plunder. He would go straight to jail unless the League agrees in the coming weeks to pass control of the country’s institutions to a caretaker government for the elections, a sticking-point that could trigger a constitutional crisis.

The League will fight bitterly. But if it loses an election, the BNP would rehabilitate its disgraced heir and its Jamaat allies (at least, those not executed by then). Once a party is in power in Bangladesh it is the unalterable tradition to declare nearly everything decreed by your opponents to be null and void.

First published in Asia print edition The Economist, August 10th 2013