Bangladesh: focus on BELA (bangladesh environmental lawyers association)
introducing taslima islam
I am a senior staff lawyer and have been with BELA since 1998. I previously worked for a human rights organisation, the third largest NGO in Bangladesh.
BELA was founded in 1992 by Dr Mohiuddin Farooque who died in 1997 and it was his inspiration and BELA’s activities that inspired me to join the organisation.
The head of BELA is Syeda Rizwana Hasan (Director of Programmes) who is an advocate in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and she has the responsibility of managing the organisation. We have an executive committee of nine who make the policy decisions.
All are practising lawyers. BELA has a national office in the capital, Dhaka, five divisional headquarters across Bangladesh and two liaison offices in Tangail and the coastal area of Cox’s Bazar. The national office has a staff of 25, covering all divisions, including 10-12 lawyers plus support staff.
Each local office has its own lawyer plus administrative backup. The work policies of the organisation cover financial and gender rights including maternity and paternity leave, child care provision and transport for women working at night.
As a senior staff lawyer my time is spent researching and preparing draft petitions for legal cases. I do not personally appear before the court but work in the publications department as a project coordinator. My responsibility is to organise the majority of the regional and national workshops. I attend many of the seminars held outside Bangladesh.
BELA’s activities cover a wide range of issues including, research, environmental litigation and public awareness campaigns. One of our most popular are the mixed training courses for civil and NGO activists, law students and government officials. These are held every three months. We also have training for journalists on reporting environmental issues and special workshops for judges. We organise community training for farmers and fishermen and organise debates on current issues to draft appeals against proposed government laws. Our protest rallies are supported by "air time" on the TV and radio and promoted by poster and sticker campaigns.
BELA’s library has over 4,000 books, journals and reports and an archive of newspaper articles on environmental issues dating back to 1993. All these are available for the public to study, in the reading room. We have two members who are available to receive any complaints from individuals which are scrutinised for legal comment.
In our quarterly newsletter, published in English and Bengali, we discuss and analyse current issues and review details of recent legal decisions. Included are copies of briefing papers covering such issues as biotechnology, globalisation of trade, GMOs, environment and climate change.
To date BELA has filed 44 cases, covering river, air and industrial pollution plus protecting natural resources and the removal of polluting industries from residential areas. Of the12 where a decision has been reached all the outcomes have been in our favour. The remainder are yet to be decided.
Following one of these cases the concept of “Public Interest Litigation” was recognised by our judiciary. This success gave many of Bangladesh’s 130,000,000 voiceless citizens access to the judicial system.
India's proposed river interlinking
This is a cross boundary environmental issue concerning India's proposed plan to interlink a number of its key rivers. If successful, this plan will divert water to irrigate dry areas, leading to a severely restricted flow reaching Bangladesh. This will cause the destruction of both biodiversity and culture and increase tension between our two countries. To date we have collected approximately 10,000 signatures of protest and organised national and regional workshops to publicise the issue. The participants included representatives from the governments of Pakistan and Nepal. Activists from these two countries and from India attended and showed solidarity to our cause.
This campaign concerns the issue of inclusion of environment related provision in our constitution. This is already enjoyed in 117 different countries. India, Sri Lanka and Nepal have amended their constitutions to include environmental provision and we are keen that Bangladesh should follow their example. We already have provision for the right to life (including the right to environment) which were established by a BELA case ruling.
This does not go far enough therefore we are campaigning for the environment to be dealt with separately. We have written to the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Parliament Members and Law Makers. We plan to hold a debate to influence the government’s decision at policy level (policy advocacy). This approach has been successful in the past by publicising the issues raised by draft bills before parliament. Our plan is that the recommendations from the debates are presented to the Government for inclusion into the final bill.
This action should lead to an environmental clause being incorporated into the constitution.