Rosie Costa

Rosaline (Rosie) Costa, a Bangladeshi human rights activist, was forced to leave the country in July 2016. In 2017, CSW interviewed her in New York. During the interview, Rosie discussed the reasons she had to leave Bangladesh, and shed light on issues of religious freedom in the country.

Rosalind Costa

Rosie’s involvement in human rights work began in 1986, after she left the community of nuns to which she belonged for 17 years to pursue human rights work. She spent time working with women and children in the garment industry, establishing a hostel for rescued children who had been forced into madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction), and speaking around the world about issues faced by minorities and particularly Hindus.

Forced To Flee

While Rosie had been no stranger to risk in her work, her fears for her safety grew following a number of killings of Christians in Bangladesh, perpetrated by people claiming to belong to Daesh. “I realised that I was being followed by some people, that’s when I left the country … I saw how the people were killed, so if something was to happen to me nobody would be able to rescue me from these people.”

For years prior to her enforced departure, Rosie faced many challenges. “I received threats when I worked for the garment industry. On many occasions the owners came to pick me up, or sent hoodlums to pick me up, once they broke my hip bone. I have been physically attacked several times, for several nights I got threatening phone calls and I realised it was not safe to stay there anymore because of the way they were killing people in their houses and on the street.”

When asked how she felt about being forced to leave Bangladesh, she replied “I feel I am dead in a way, because I had my livelihood there.”

Rosie also believes that the government has continued to monitor her.

Forced Conversion

Since 2012, Rosie has been involved in rescuing children who were being forced to convert to Islam. She offered some insight into this situation:

“Children were being taken from their parents by pimps who said they would take them to mission schools and they would not have to spend any money on these children. They were taken to madrassas, where they had to sign a paper saying that they had converted to Islam and were ready to die for Islam. They were then split into groups and sent to various madrassas. Most of the children are Christians. I know of over 500 cases of this that took place in 2012. There are many forced marriages every year. I heard of cases of children as young as four or five being kidnapped.”

Extremism

Rosie also highlighted how radical Islam has been a growing problem in the country.

“We have around 147 groups in Bangladesh under various names that are related to Islamic State. Since 2015 they have targeted Christians, many priests and nuns have received death threats. None of the perpetrators have been arrested or even pursued. Last year I think there were 8 or 9 cases where they attacked missions in groups.”

“Recently Islamist terrorists have been attacking journalists, and writers. In the beginning minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Shi’as were the main targets and were regularly killed.”

Religious Minorities

When asked to describe the current situation for the Christian community in Bangladesh, Rosie replied:

“The Christians are having more and more serious problems which I did not see in earlier times. Before 2000, there was one incident in 1998 in which time bombs were thrown into one church, and after that a few similar cases. In 2013-14 there were a few more incidents, but 2015 was worse and it has been getting worse ever since. People are being identified by their religion and as a result are discriminated against by the government as well as by other groups.”

The situation of Hindus is not much better:

“Hindus have been having continuous problems since 1946, but things are getting worse. The main issue is land owned by the Hindus from the days of Hindu majority regions in Bangladesh. Those are the places that are being targeted because if they can evict the Hindus, they will go to India and will be unable to get the land back.”

Government Inaction

The current government is not directly responsible for the problems faced by religious minorities, but its inaction is an issue. CSW asked Rosie what could be done to improve the situation for minorities:

“By not doing anything, the government are indirectly supporting these extremist groups. At this point, unless the government changes the policy and takes some stern actions or decisions to stop this extremism, I don’t think there will be any development in this situation and it will get worse and worse. The prime minister has hardly done anything thus far, not a single arrest has been made, that is why I think extremism is increasing.”

While Rosie was skeptical that the government would bow to international pressure, she thought there were measures that could be taken to improve the situation of the minorities, especially if pressure came from countries giving aid to Bangladesh. For example, the government could recruit people from minorities in every sector, from administration to the army and police. She also suggested a reform of the education system, removing bias religious education materials from schools.

Rosie’s Inspiration

When asked whether there was anything that encouraged or inspired her in her work, Rosie said she was a “peacemaker” and that was her “inspiration and internal peace”, adding, “that’s what I have burned for my whole life: when people came to me with tears and left with smiling faces that was a success.”

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant

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NGOs in Partnership with International Parliamentarians

LONG READ: “NGOs in Partnership with International Parliamentarians” is the speech delivered by CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth’s (FCO) Conference,  ‘Preventing violent extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How freedom of religion or belief can help’, 19 -20 October 2016. 


As we’ve already heard today, the fundamental human right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), embedded in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is one that at first can appear daunting and difficult to raise. Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB has said that “it is the most challenging of all human rights, it is the spice in the soup of human rights.” However, although daunting it is extremely important to intensify our joint efforts to promote it.

The latest information from the Pew Research Center stated that in 2014, 74% or roughly ¾ of the world’s population, live in countries with either high or very high restrictions on religious freedom. That means that over 5.1 billion people in this world are not able to fully recognise their inalienable human right to practice or change the religion or belief system of their choice.

Furthermore, FoRB is part and parcel of peace and stability; a cornerstone of democratic societies, and it can provide an important antidote to rising violent extremism. High-levels of discrimination based on religion or belief and FoRB restrictions can undermine peaceful development and in fact increase the grounds for the rise of extremism.

It is clear that some of the most significant foreign affairs challenges the international community are currently grappling with, involve violent extremism, and many of the challenges are deeply rooted in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

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Interview with a Sri Lankan Human Rights Advocate – Part 1

Patterns of discrimination against religious minorities

CSW spoke to a human rights advocate in Sri Lanka whose identity for security reasons has been withheld. This post has been edited for clarity.

Q: Could you comment on religious extremism in Sri Lanka?

A: A recent surge of religious extremism in Sri Lanka began sometime in 2012 during the tenure of the previous government, with the emergence of extremist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Force Army), or the Sinhala Ravaya, or Hela Bodu Pawura. These groups emerged after the ethnic war, which ended in May 2009. These extremist groups led violent attacks against religious minorities. Most violent attacks were led with impunity and tacit approval. The judiciary was also very much biased.

For example, there was one particular case that was filed against the General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena. There was video-document evidence submitted in the High Court of Colombo in that particular case. Even after video evidence was submitted, the General Secretary was released, and the case came to a settlement. The video evidence was not taken into consideration by the court – and this is the High Court of Colombo. That was [how] the situation used to be in Sri Lanka. These Buddhist extremist groups also led a lot of hate campaigns, against Muslim minorities as well. They also used the media as a tool to lead these hate campaigns. And even when they led violent attacks, they also used media to portrayed a biased attitude of the minority victim who actually got attacked rather than the perpetrators themselves.

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Interview with a Sri Lankan Human Rights Advocate – Part 2

Part 2: Circular 2008

CSW spoke to a human rights advocate in Sri Lanka whose identity for security reasons has been withheld. This post has been edited for clarity.

 

Q: Would you be able to share with us what groups like yours – and other civil society organisations based in Sri Lanka – are doing at the moment to address freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) violations?

A: There are various strategies. One of the core things that we do is to document incidents. We do a lot of advocacy at a local level by meeting government officials and ministers. We also lobby with some of our international partners as well. We file cases on behalf of victims who are religious minorities, and we take up different legal interventions. For example, when there is an attack, we will not file a case immediately but we try first to send out legal letters; working with the national police commission, working with the relevant ministries, and so on. If that does not work out, then of course we will file a case against the authorities in the Supreme Court.

In most instances, we support cases that have been filed against Christians. We also do a lot of other projects where we work on broader human rights issues and we form local networks with community leaders, with pastors. We have consultation processes with them, we train them, we have advocacy seminars – making them aware of their legal rights and teaching them good practices. We also work with the media and journalists, bringing together journalists and the media on good reporting for religious violence.

Q: What can international organisations do to echo the concerns you’ve identified?

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