History and Identity: Black History Month

I wrote this as a history student in 2011. It is as relevant now as it was then – perhaps, given the current political climate in Europe and the US, more so. We are still so far from the hope that ‘by the year 2000, every schoolchild will be taught the true colour of great men of antiquity’.*

History is central to identity. Not being taught your own history is a form of disenfranchisement and this is what Black History Month seeks to address. But it shouldn’t have to: we should be taught this stuff at school; we should know about the contributions different groups have made to European and British society, because they are remarkable, and because they are as much a part of British history as a part of ‘black’ (or ‘Jewish’, ‘Arab’, ‘Indian’ etc) history. Otherwise we may be in the thrall of such ignorance as was exhibited by John Cleese in his complaint that London is ‘no longer an English city’. Actually, it kinda never was. London has been a centre of trade for centuries, meaning that it has long been a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural ‘melting-pot’. Cockney incorporates words from Yiddish and Romany. So get your facts straight. Especially when you are a British ‘institution’ yourself.

However there is a danger that our sense of history will define and constrain rather than liberate us. For this reason we have to take care with the popular history we are creating. It is worrying that the two most prominent historians in the public eye are both well to the right-of-centre. Eight years ago Niall Ferguson got to explain in a six part television series why the British Empire was so great – not a conclusion that many historians are comfortable with. Do people now believe that Britain was superior, that it brought massive benefits to backward peoples? Not a healthy view. This summer David Starkey was given a platform to express his views on the riots: they happened because ‘whites have become black’, as though ‘black culture’ is inherently violent and driven by opportunistic theft. It chimed with the Conservative representation of feral youths, and then he made this a ‘black’ thing. These men are in an undoubted position of influence over public opinion, respected academics. What they say matters, and may be taken as fact, even when it is on a subject of intense debate; or, in the case of Starkey’s comments this summer, just plain bigoted.

So history should be treated with caution. It can be as important to appreciate historical ‘myth’ (not dragons and heroes, but certain historical interpretations that may come to form part of a ‘national’ psyche), as the history of ‘proper’ historians, because this is what really forms identity. How can we hope to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict without being aware that the idea of Israel defending itself heroically (ok, so some heroes) against surrounding enemy states that sought its total destruction is central to its foundation myth? And of course there is some truth in this – although to see Israel as solely defensive is misguided, as Israeli historians are beginning to admit. History, therefore, must also challenge these popular notions so that we can move past them.

Studying the past is hazardous: we must be careful that the creation of identity does not mean the closing of ranks; history should broaden our understanding, not lead us to develop a blinkered view of our ‘own community’. Specific history months risk creating an inward-looking communalism, and compartmentalising histories that really form part of the fabric of history as a whole. But at least these campaigns go some way to correcting the bias in research and teaching.

Histories should be integrated with the overarching ‘white’ narrative that dominates history in this country, because each is linked – the white narrative is both false, and boring. If this aim is pursued, we won’t need Black History Month, or Women’s History Month, or any other special focus on groups that have been under-represented in our education, because their part will be addressed and taught in schools. But in the meantime, happy October.

*The Autobiography of Malcolm X



The Politicisation of the Bangladeshi War Crimes Tribunal

I. Introduction

In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis went to the streets chanting ‘Hang him! Hang him!’ (‘Fashi Chai! Fashi Chai!’) in protest against the sentence of life imprisonment handed down to Abdul Quader Mollah by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), the visceral calls for blood-spill belying the carnival atmosphere at the Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka. This was the biggest social movement Bangladesh had seen in twenty years. The Bangladeshi government gave into the protestors’ demands, changing the ICT’s statutes in order to allow the prosecution to appeal the sentence. Mollah was sentenced to death and executed in December 2013. Despite claims that the ICT seeks redress for the victims of crimes perpetrated during the 1971 War of Liberation that led to the formation of an independent Bangladesh, the needs of victims themselves have been largely overlooked. Instead, the government has coopted victims in order to further a political agenda. This agenda seeks to undermine the Awami League government’s opponents, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami, by identifying them beyond doubt with the perpetrators of war crimes. In this way, the ICT is desperately flawed. By ignoring the wishes of victims themselves, it fails to bring them justice. In acting as a political tool of the government, it has failed to comply with international standards of due process (Robertson 2015). In this context, the use of capital punishment is doubly troubling. Not only are executions carried out despite sometimes dubious evidence, they are also politically motivated.

II. Birangona

The International Crimes Tribunal established by the Awami League government in 2010, purports to bring justice at last to the victims of the 1971 Liberation War As part of this, ICT judges are empowered to issue the death penalty to those guilty of ‘the most egregious crimes’ (D’Costa & Hossain 2010). The understanding of justice in the ICT is predominantly retributive. The tribunal’s sentences are intended to punish perpetrators, rather than to rehabilitate them. Some survivors of the war, including those who lost family members, have undoubtedly welcomed the state execution of convicted war criminals as a form of vengeance. Many of those who celebrated the executions of Mollah and Kamaruzzaman saw avenging the deaths of family members as an essential part of justice: ‘Kamaruzzaman guided the Pakistani soldiers into our village. Now as he has been hanged, the widows and the children of the martyrs welcome it’. The scale of the Shahbagh protests show that there is clear popular support among some Bangladeshis for the use of the death penalty by the ICT as a form of justice.

However, although the female survivors of wartime rape are a common trope in the ICT’s proceedings and in making calls for justice, the needs of these women themselves have been largely overlooked. To the extent that their testimonies are available, it is clear that many of the women who survived sexual assault, or who were left orphaned or widowed by the war, seek alternative forms of justice, which would allow them to move on. Women subjected to sexual violence during the war have been erased from the national narrative, reduced to symbols of the dishonour brought on the Bengali community, rather than giving them either the space to speak for themselves or the choice to remain silent (D’Costa 2011). Despite early attempts to honour these women in the aftermath of war by giving them the title of Birangona, or war heroine, the word soon became a label of social exclusion (D’Costa 2011, 151).

For those women that are prepared to talk about their experiences, acceptance by their communities is their primary concern (ASK 2013). Many of the women subjected to the most abhorrent forms of violence favour reconciliation over retribution. As part of this, they seek the opportunity to grant forgiveness to their violators (Saikia 2011). This chance has not been granted, and some women feel that their stories have been exploited by the government in order to further a political agenda. In the words of Rumana, who was orphaned during the war and whose family has been ostracised by Bangladeshi society since:

The pain is that no government till (sic.) date has taken notice of us. No government has thought of us. On the contrary, everyone has tried to politicise things. They want to make us their activists (ASK 2013, 49).

Successive governments have failed to provide social or economic support to the victims of wartime rape and to girls orphaned by the war, who have suffered both shame and poverty. Despite some support for the ICT as a way of bringing the perpetrators of war crimes to justice, the more pressing concerns continue to be socioeconomic forms of justice. Meanwhile, the execution of the perpetrators of war crimes eliminates completely the opportunity for their victims to pursue reconciliation. In this light, the insistence by the Awami League government that it seeks accountability and justice for the crimes committed in the Liberation War appears rather cynical.

III. Politicisation

Why, then, if the International Crimes Tribunal in general – and the use of the death penalty in particular – does not respond to the needs of victims, has the Awami League government chosen to maintain both? The criticism from the war’s female victims about the use of the war crimes tribunal for political ends rings true. The workings of the tribunal suggest that the trials are subject to severe political intervention, which has undermined their claims to legitimacy. Capital punishment is a crucial part of this politicisation. The government has demonstrated that it is prepared to intervene in the workings of the ICT. Most egregiously, it rushed through an amendment to the tribunal’s statutes that allowed the prosecution to appeal verdicts and sentences. This right of appeal was then applied retroactively to successfully challenge Abdul Quader Mollah’s sentence to life imprisonment, which was increased to a sentence of death. Importantly, this action was taken in response to the Shahbagh protests, and prime minister Sheikh Hasina insisted that the judicial panel should ‘understand the sentiment of the people’ (Robertson 2015, 70-1). Shahbagh was the biggest social movement Bangladesh had seen in twenty years, drawing hundreds of thousands of protestors from across the country. Bangladeshi democracy is weak and, since its establishment in 1991, political opposition has been played out on the streets as much and even more than in parliament. Hartals, or strikes, are commonly used to force the government’s hand, and ceding to the demands of street politics is common practice (Van Schendel 2009). But for the executive to give into protestors is one thing, for it to force the judiciary to do the same, is quite another.

For the Shahbagh protestors themselves, the execution of the perpetrators of war crimes might be the only way for victims and their communities to obtain a sense of security. As the language of Bangladesh’s main Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has become increasingly intolerant of brands of Islam it regards as deviant, memories of the Punjabi elite’s attitudes to what it regarded as Hinduised Bengali Muslims, and to Hindu Bengalis, are likely to assert themselves (D’Costa 2011). The ‘victory’ sign flashed by Mollah on leaving court, after being sentenced to life imprisonment, was interpreted by many Bangladeshis as confidence that a BNP-Jamaat coalition government would release him. For those to whom he is still 1971’s Butcher of Mirpur, this is cause for both fear and anger. Mollah’s execution is at least in part a symptom of a weak democratic system and a judiciary that is not sufficiently independent to resist governmental interference. Nonetheless, mob justice of this kind clearly undermines the court’s independence and is damaging to its claims to accountability (Robertson 2015, 76-7).

And the government’s political motivations go beyond a need to bow to popular pressure. The Awami League has used the ICT to strengthen its version of the events of 1971. Atrocities were committed by both sides but the ICT undertakes to try only those Bangladeshis who fought alongside the Pakistani army. Members of the Pakistani army and government are not covered by the tribunal; nor are the so-called freedom fighters, or Mukhti Bahni, who fought for liberation, though they too targeted civilians (Bose 2011). The ICT is, by its very nature, political. Moreover, all of those tried so far are senior members of either the main opposition party, the BNP, or its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami. This undermines the tribunal’s credibility – particularly among members of the Jamaat and its supporters, who claim that the government is using the tribunal to discredit and even eliminate the party.

The bias of the ICT’s bench was exposed in 2012 when The Economist revealed that the presiding judge, Justice Huq, was receiving advice from a Bangladeshi lawyer in Brussels, Ahmed Ziauddin, who had also been advising the prosecution. The content of leaked Skype and email conversations demonstrated that the tribunal was determined to achieve convictions, totally violating the defendants’ right to a fair trial. The Supreme Court also appears to be biased: Justice Sinha’s interpretation of section 20(2) of the ICT Act as meaning that ‘awarding the death penalty is the rule’ for defendants found guilty by the tribunal is troubling on two counts. It fails to distinguish between the magnitude of different crimes; and Sinha’s understanding of the law benefits the Awami League, by giving judicial support to the government’s political statements in favour of the execution of war criminals (see Robertson 2015, 76-7).

The politicised nature of proceedings is best understood in the context of the contested meaning of the war of 1971 and indeed of the meaning of Bangladeshi identity. Conflict over these issues has increased since democratisation in the early 1990s; and in recent years the competition for power between the BNP and the Awami League has been replaced by the battle between an Islamist vision of the state propounded by the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Awami League’s more secularist, though still predominantly Muslim, conception. This can be seen in the increasingly sectarian language used by the Jamaat, which casts the Ahmadiyya sect as anti-Islamic and Hinduised and the Shahbagh protestors as atheists. This language is, as D’Costa has pointed out, troublingly similar to that used by the Pakistani leadership in the lead up to and during the war of 1971, which saw the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians by even the lowest estimation, and a genocide against the Bengali Hindu population (2011, 109; Bose 2011a).

But Shahbagh has not been the only popular movement. Another group of protestors opposed Mollah’s execution, and claimed that the use of the death sentence was driven by political, rather than judicial, motivations. This criticism is not without basis. Of those indicted by the ICT, all but two are prominent members of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The government was able to secure the death penalty for Mollah, despite the ICT’s initial sentence of life imprisonment. This makes his execution in December 2013 appear worryingly like a summary execution, particularly since he was hanged only days after the Supreme Court judgment awarding capital punishment, giving his lawyers little chance to appeal the sentence (Robertson 2015, 73). The award of death sentences to two men tried in absentia, without the possibility of retrial should they return to the country, is further indication of the government’s determination to eliminate the Jamaat leadership. The Awami League has used the undoubted popular support for both the ICT and its use of capital punishment as a useful front for this aim.

IV. Conclusion

For families of the victims of crimes committed during the 1971 War of Liberation, vengeance and anger are natural responses. There is significant popular support in Bangladesh for the execution of those found guilty of war crimes. However, the needs of the victims themselves, and particularly of the women survivors of war crimes, have been overlooked in favour of a retributive understanding of justice that serves political ends. Women continue to be sidelined in the national response to war crimes and genocide, while the government has used popular demands for the execution of convicted war criminals to justify acts that serve its own self-interest. Capital punishment through the International Crimes Tribunal is part of the ongoing conflict over the identity of the Bangladeshi nation. The meaning of the 1971 war is played out through the prosecution of alleged war criminals, predominantly drawn from the leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The executions demonstrate the determination of the Awami League government to eliminate its political opponents. In the course of the ongoing politicisation of war crimes trials, the Birangona women continue to be overlooked. Alternative forms of justice that might meet their needs have been disregarded. No government since independence has made any effort to meet the socioeconomic needs of survivors of wartime sexual assault or of those orphaned by the war. And despite reconciliation being favoured by many Bangladeshi war crime victims, the battle between the Awami League and the Jamaat leaves no room for it.


Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) (2013), Rising from the Ashes: Women’s Narratives of 1971, English Edition, University Press Limited, Dhaka, first published in Bengali by ASK in 2001.

Bose, Sarmila (2011a), ‘The Question of Genocide and the Quest for Justice in the 1971 War’, Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 393-419.

Bose, Sarmila (2011b), ‘”Dead Reckoning”: A Response’, Economic and Political Weekly, 31 December, pp. 76-79.

D’Costa, Bina (2011), Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia, Routledge, London.

D’Costa, Bina & Hossain, Sara (2010), ‘Redress for Sexual Violence before the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh: Lessons from History, and Hopes for the Future’, Criminal Law Forum, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 331-359.

O’Donnell, Charles Peter (1984), Bangladesh: Biography of a Muslim Nation, Westview, Boulder, Colorado.

Robertson, Geoffrey (2015), Report on the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh, International Forum for Democracy and Human Rights.

Saikia, Yasmin (2011), ‘Insaniyat for Peace: Survivors’ Narrative of the 1971 War of Bangladesh’, Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 475-501.

Van Schendel, Willem (2009), A History of Bangladesh, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

The violence of the Jamaica charter flight

‘Forced removal’, ‘deportation’, ‘chartered flight’. Somehow none of these terms fully encapsulates the violence – psychological, physical, economic – of the flight that sent more than 50 people back to Jamaica in early September. Part of the government’s drive to be tough on immigration, it has ripped families and lives apart. But it had little intention of bringing down immigration numbers: 50 people won’t even make a dent.

The chartered flight used to send people back to Jamaica was described as ‘secret’ by the press and by campaigners. To an extent this is true: the Home Office didn’t publicise it. But having attention drawn to it served the government’s purpose. 50 people. Not enough to reduce immigration numbers but enough to make a loud political statement. A statement that says ‘we are strong on immigration, we do not allow people to enter the country without permission or to overstay their welcome’.

Yet strong immigration policy has minimal effect on the numbers of people entering a country, whether by legal or underground channels. The state of the economy is the primary pull factor. The difficulty of arriving or staying is secondary, once migrants have decided that the situation at home is no longer tenable. And the evidence suggests that the stricter a country’s forcible removal policies, the fewer people leave voluntarily. Looking strong on immigration will not reduce the numbers of people entering the UK.

The individuals on this chartered flight to Jamaica were not people who were likely to disappear or slip off the radar. On the contrary, the very fact that they even could be deported was because they were in contact with the government. It is far easier to find and deport someone who signs on every week than it is to remove someone you didn’t even know had entered the country. Passengers on this flight attended their regular signing on sessions at the Home Office. For some, it was at one of these sessions that they were detained and subsequently deported.

The signing on requirement, and the deportations, form part of the strong arm policing of black and brown communities. Immigrant communities are forced into regular interactions with law enforcement and government during which they are treated with suspicion. More than this, the deportation of a group of Jamaicans, mostly men, feeds the narrative of absent and criminal black fathers. Those being deported are depicted as criminals who have overstayed in the UK. But it is not a criminal offence to have an irregular immigration status. And most of those people being deported have been here since they were children. One has been here since he was 4. Another has grandchildren who were born here.

The government has little interest in reducing net immigration, partly because it knows it has little chance of succeeding. But it needs to look as though it is trying, in order to fulfill an election promise, and to keep ahead of the wave of populism it unleashed in chasing UKIP rightwards to retain the Conservative voter base. Immigrant communities and people of colour are the inevitable sacrificial victims. Their personal and family lives are disregarded. And they can be further scapegoated: deportations become proof of criminality, of illegality.

Paper special envoys and Peacekeepers’ abuse

Last week, Angelina Jolie made an unpublicised appearance at the UN peacekeeping summit – unpublicised, that is, until her speech, in which she highlighted the issue of sexual abuse by peacekeeping forces, was reported on and praised. But far from being a powerful critique that held the UN to account, this was a missed opportunity. The role of celebrity special envoys has been questioned by people who feel that it is self-serving on the part of the young, white, conventionally attractive women who typically take on these positions. Jolie failed to answer these critics.

In her speech, Jolie called for the peacekeepers who’ve perpetrated sexual abuse to be prosecuted. For this minimalist statement, she has been applauded. ‘This is why Angelina Jolie believes the UN is failing women and children in conflict’, reads the Refinery 29 headline. But as a critique, it was sadly lacking. UN peacekeeping is not undermined, as Jolie claimed, by ‘a few intolerable cases’. It is undermined by systemic and underreported violation by peacekeepers of the very people they are supposed to protect. In 2016, Media Diversified began the Predatory Peacekeepers campaign to highlight the prevalence of abuse by UN peacekeepers. They have highlighted the widespread, and long-term, nature of such abuse, which an independent investigation found to be systematic as far back as 2005. These are not isolated cases.

The UN, to its credit, has acknowledged that the issue is deep-rooted. UN Security Council Resolution 2272, adopted in March 2016, noted the ‘serious and continuous allegations’ of sexual abuse perpetrated by peacekeeping forces. This has come only after threats to prosecute a whistleblower on the extent of abuse (which have since been withdrawn). Given the patchy history of UN resolutions – those demanding the protection of women and girls in conflict have proved sadly inadequate according to most commentators – this clearly is no silver bullet. It is not enough but it is something.

And it goes further than Jolie did. As someone who purports to know about the abuse of women and children in conflict, she should be aware that it is systematic. Soldiers enact violence on women during war at an even greater rate than men enact violence on women during peace. Add to this the difference in power between UN troops and often-poor local populations, and it is clear that the space communities and individuals have to hold their abusers to account is minimal. The UN has a duty to tackle a system which not only allows the abuse to take place but which also silences those within the system who try to speak out – let alone the survivors of abuse (or the families of those who do not survive). Jolie had a duty to demand this.

Angelina Jolie does not need the UN. She has a powerful public image in her own right, including a role as guest lecturer in the Women in Peace and Security programme at the London School of Economics. By speaking about abuse by peacekeepers, Angelina Jolie had the opportunity to demand that the UN take concrete steps to tackle not just individual cases of abuse, but to enact real cultural change within the system.

Instead, her statement was watered down and pandering. Jolie has the advantage, by not being employed by the UN but instead being a celebrity and personality in her own right, to make strong critical statements that people within the UN might find harder due the silencing they experience within the system. If she truly believes in the work she is doing to protect women and girls in conflict, she should use her platform to this end. Drawing attention to such issues is the purpose of her role. If this means going against the UN, she should do so, even if it means losing her position as special envoy. She does not need the UN: rather, the UN needs her to draw attention to the work it does, to raise and improve its public image. This gives her the opportunity to hold the system to account. By not taking this chance, she has given the impression that this is nothing more than a paper role – a role for self-aggrandisement. Ironically, this also weakens the UN’s public image, as yet another of its special envoys fails to live up to the role.