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Burning Coal in a World Heritage Fores

The Hypocrisy of the Government of Bangladesh in the international context

Residents of Gondamara

Only a year ago, the international community congratulated the Government of Bangladesh for its strong commitment to fight against climate change. In its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), the Bangladeshi Executive promised unconditionally to reduce its emissions by 5%, and by 15% more, subject “to appropriate international support”.

Additionally, at the recent Paris Summit COP21 the Government took pride in being at the forefront of tackling climate change. And just this week Bangladesh has been appointed the Chair of the Delta Coalition and will cost a working session of COP 22 in November.

The Government of Bangladesh, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wazed, has lauded praise upon itself as a pioneer of change, an environmental protectorate and driving force in development of small states most affected by climate change.  That is a false rhetoric.  The ruling party in Bangladesh is not about creating and developing; it is about entrenching power and creating false rhetoric designed to mislead the international community about its true intentions.

The topic of climate change illustrates how well the Government of Bangladesh’s action differs greatly in theory when compared to its practice. Similarly to other topics of deep public concern such as transitional justice, human rights protection and the fight against terrorism, the official international narrative presented by the Government of Bangladesh fails to correspond to any notion of reality at the domestic level.

While the Government of Bangladesh portrays the establishment of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) as one of the greatest exponents of justice and accountability for international crimes, the reality is that the judicial practice of this tribunal falls woefully short of “international standards of fair trial and due process”, as noted by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which called for the halt of all the executions ordered by the ICT.

Analogously, during the 2013 Universal Periodic Review 2013, the Government of Sheikh Hasina reaffirmed its “unequivocal stand on “zero tolerance” against human rights violations by the law enforcement agencies as well as on their impunity”. However, a few months later, the Executive started a massive crackdown against thousands of members of the political opposition protesting against the opacity and unfairness of the electoral process that gave the majority of the parliamentary seats to the Awami League.

Reports of extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances were widespread and remain in abundance today. Unfortunately, both the Government and the law enforcement agencies remain unaccountable for their barbaric actions.

In developing its zero tolerance towards extremism, as one would expect, it has received a great deal of support internationally.  The Government of Bangladesh takes pride in being one of the strongest and most strategic allies in the global fight against terrorism and creating a secular environment based on fundamental principles of the rule of law. 

This is another false rhetoric. It has blamed the victims of extremist and radical attacks for their own fate, for defaming religious settlement. Victims targeted for their secular, atheist views have been blamed by the Executive thus reducing the space for freedom of expression. Alarmingly, it has manipulated the counter-terrorism narrative to detain thousands of members of the opposition and yield electoral dividends.

A closer look at the particular policies carried out by the Government of Bangladesh domestically permits one to conclude that the same disparity is present in relation to climate change.

Despite the official pro-environment narrative and the much-voiced commitments to reduce emissions, the Government of Bangladesh is now planning to build a coal-power plant, the Rampal plant, in the Sundarbans, just 14 kilometers from the edge of the World Heritage Forest.

Although the Government’s position defends that the coal plant will not affect the diversity and health of the environment, experts remain skeptical of the Executive’s claims.

As a matter of fact, certain high-ranking officials have recently acknowledged that the construction and functioning of the plant—which is a joint partnership with India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation—will have substantial consequences for the flora and fauna of the mangrove forest.

Particularly concerning is the continuous and unstoppable reduction of the population of tigers in the area despite the Executive’s years-long promise to protect the species. Recently, UNESCO wrote to the Government seeking an explanation. 

The Sundarbans is considered the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world; and consequently, one of the most important carbon sinks at the global level. Damaging the forest will have, therefore, catastrophic consequences not only domestically but also internationally; and the construction of the coal plant contradicts the Government’s environmental commitments.

It must be noted that one of the most relevant ‘adaptation priorities’ for Bangladesh in its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions was “biodiversity and ecosystem conservation”. Nevertheless, building a coal-based power plant next to the forest that constitutes around 50% of the country’s reserved forests questions the genuineness behind these proclaimed priorities.

Moreover, although the INDC states that the Government intends to manage coal fired power stations in a “carbon-neutral way” using “super-critical technology”, it is still unclear how this technology would be implemented, and there is strong controversy around the alleged cleanness of the so-called “carbon-neutral” alternative to burn coal.

As a matter of fact, well-reputed international organizations such as Greenpeace have been campaigning for decades against the use of coal as a source of power due to its damaging polluting effects on both water and air.

According to the organization “emissions from burning coal for heat and energy fuel global warming, making coal the single greatest threat to our climate”. Relevantly, several activists affirm that the pollution of air and water in addition to the overpopulation of the area and the shipment of coal will destroy the mangrove forest.

The domestic initiative to build the Rampal plant is another example of the Government of Bangladesh’s hypocrisy, and is even more concerning when one notes that Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries threatened by climate change. Rewarding members of the Government, most notably the Prime Minister, for environmental initiatives is a slap in the face to those seeking to address the very real threat of climate change.

Climate change is directly related to the enjoyment of human rights. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has systematically and unequivocally acknowledged the intrinsic relationship between climate and rights, arguing that climate change threatens the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development, among others.

As a matter of fact, studies and analysis from different universities have found causality between climate change and rise in social violence, institutional breakdowns and political instability, which also has a terrible impact on human rights. We must note that the lives of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi citizens are linked to the Sundarbans from which they derive their livelihood, and the forest offers natural protection against cyclones to millions of people.

Despite its harmful outcomes in humanitarian terms, with this project the Government of Bangladesh has decided to prioritize its economic interests at the cost of environmental health.

Ultimately, the country’s economic development and GDP growth is the element that has provided the Government with a shield to criticisms in the international arena. Sadly, short-sighted foreign countries have proven to be more interested in the trade profits with Bangladesh than in the human rights crisis of the country, the Executive’s failure to comply with international commitments, or in this case, its suicidal environmental policy.

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