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Bangladesh: Protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Chittagong Hill Tracts

9 July 2024

Minority Rights Group, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and FIAN International express their concern about the ongoing judicial review of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Regulation 1900 in Bangladesh, which aims at weakening its wording that would undermine the rights of the Indigenous Peoples, also called Adivasis, of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh. The organizations call upon the government of Bangladesh to take the necessary measures to protect indigenous peoples’ rights as well as the multicultural heritage of the CHT and Bangladesh as a whole.

Minority Rights Group, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and FIAN International, are deeply concerned about the ongoing judicial review of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Regulation, 1900 aiming at weakening its wording that would undermine the rights of the Indigenous Peoples, also called Adivasis, of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh.  

The CHT Regulation, 1900 (also: the Regulation) is a pillar of the self-government system of the region, where most Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh live, and where violent conflict persists despite the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (CHT Accord) of 1997. 

Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh have been subjected to widespread human rights violations for decades, forced evictions from their ancestral lands to make way for mono-plantations (e.g. rubber), road constructions, tourism, Bengali settlement programs, reservoirs and hydroelectric schemes. Such evictions have been accompanied by massacres and political killings, unlawful arrest and detentions based on false charges, as well by other of grievous violations of human rights, including the rights to land, food, water, housing and to a safe clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 

The CHT Regulation, 1900 is of paramount importance as it grants these Indigenous Peoples a degree of autonomy, by empowering traditional indigenous institutions, and upholding customary laws and practices relating to lands, resources and family. 

This is not the first time that the CHT Regulation, 1900 has been subject to judicial scrutiny. In 2016, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed the validity and effectiveness of the Regulation in the case of Wagachara Tea Estate Ltd. v. Muhammad Abu Taher & Others, 16 BLD (AD), 36 (2016). Subsequently, in 2017, the same division overturned the lower court’s judgment which had declared the 1900 Regulation a ‘dead law’ in 2003, in the case of Government of Bangladesh v. Rangamati Food Products and Others 69 DLR (AD) (2017)

However, the mentioned pronouncements did not shield the provision from further challenges: in 2018, two ethnic Bengali settlers, from Rangamati and Khagrachari districts of the CHT, filed review petitions (Civil Petitions No. 54/2018 and 192/2018) before the Supreme Court against the case-law upholding the Regulation.   

In 2022, the Attorney General of Bangladesh supported the Civil Petitions No. 54/2018 and 192/2018 and requested the deletion of certain words from the aforementioned judgements, reiterating this request in May 2024. The challenged text includes the terms ‘Raja’ (traditional chief) and ‘indigenous’, as well as other paragraphs allegedly related to matters of customary law. 

The current attempt to weaken the Regulation’s wording through litigation is a serious threat to the already limited autonomy granted to the Indigenous Peoples of the CHT. If made, the proposed changes would seriously reduce the validity of the Regulation, paving the way for further disregard for indigenous rights in a country where serious human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples are already commonplace.  

 The replacement of the traditional term ‘Raja’ with the British colonial term ‘Chief’ seems an attempt to divest these traditional heads of the authority they possess, totally disregarding established regional practice. 

The deletion of the term ‘indigenous’ has the clear intent to remove or at least weaken guarantees that Bangladeshi Indigenous Peoples have been accorded under established international law over the past decades.  

The proposed deletion of paragraphs on customary law would strip the CHT Regulation, 1900 of its substance, alter its interpretation and consequently change the substance of the judgment confirming its validity. The amendment of the challenged words would have a cascade effect on the complex administrative system governing the CHT region, undermining the rights of its indigenous inhabitants without any solid legal justification.  

The government of Bangladesh has ratified most of the international human rights treaties and is thus obliged to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh. It therefore needs to comply with the obligations of Bangladesh related to legal provisions enshrined in international human rights law, the recommendations from its Treaty Bodies, the Universal Periodic Review and the Special Procedures and regularly adopt corrective measures to ensure that any state conduct is in line with its international obligations.

Given the specificity of the administrative system of the CHT and in view of the final hearing which is expected to be held on 11 July 2024, we:

  • call upon the government of Bangladesh to comply with the provisions of international legal standards protecting indigenous rights, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention against the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) while fully implementing the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord of 1997;
  • call upon the government of Bangladesh to respect and protect the multicultural heritage of the CHT and Bangladesh as a whole;
  • urge the government of Bangladesh to ratify the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), 1989;
  • recommend that the Attorney General reviews its position following proper consultation with the CHT-specific institutions – including the Ministry of CHT Affairs, the CHT Regional Council, the Hill District Councils and the Circle Chiefs;
  • recommend that the Court seeks expert opinions (e.g. in the form of amicus curiae brief) before deciding on the matter, including from indigenous leaders and civil society members.

Author(s)

FIAN International

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA)

Minority Rights Group