Research shows: "killer commandos" from Bangladesh sent on peacekeeping missions as UN Blue Helmets

Bangladesh apparently systematically sends members of these "assassin commandos", as one DW interlocutor called these elite units, to UN missions.

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Photo: Screenshot / Youtube
Photo: Screenshot / Youtube
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Sometimes journalistic research begins with a photograph that at first glance seems harmless. In this case, it's a selfie. A group of women and men in uniform pose for the camera.

According to Deutsche Welle (DW) research, the photo was taken in 2022, when soldiers from Egypt, Bangladesh and Indonesia completed training for the United Nations (UN) Blue Helmets in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The reason the photo is not harmless at all is the bald man standing in the middle. Before being sent to the UN mission, he performed a completely different duty: he was the deputy director of the intelligence department of the elite Rapid Action Battalions (RAB) in Bangladesh.

According to research, the results of which were published last year by DW and research platform Netra News, those units are responsible for murders and torture, and all this with the permission or at least with the tacit consent of the highest government officials.

The Bangladesh Ministry of Internal Affairs categorically rejected that accusation in a statement to DW and Netra News and called it a "politically motivated fabrication."

At least 40 RAB members in Blue Helmets

Bangladesh apparently systematically sends members of these "assassin commandos", as one DW interlocutor called these elite units, to UN missions.

This was shown by new research by the journalist team DW, the platform Netra News and the German newspaper Zidojce Zeitung.

For months, journalists reviewed secret military documents, spoke to various sources of information in Bangladesh and the UN, and analyzed social media profiles. In this way, more than a hundred soldiers were identified, 40 of whom in the past five years first served in the RAB, and then became members of the UN Blue Helmets.

Three of them especially attracted attention, because they worked for the RAB intelligence department, two even as deputy directors.

That secret service, multiple sources confirmed to DW, has a secret network of torture cells in Bangladesh. Several interlocutors mentioned the so-called waterboarding, the use of electric shocks and shooting simulations.

UN Report: Exclude RAB members from missions

Former members of the Rapid Action Battalion were sent to UN missions from Bangladesh despite clear warnings. Thus, the UN Committee against Torture, a body composed of independent experts, expressed "deep concern" in its 2019 report about "torture, arbitrary arrests, undocumented detention of people and unlawful killings" committed by Bangladeshi security forces.

Jens Modvig, a member of that UN body at the time, says that the Committee made clear recommendations to exclude RAB members from peacekeeping missions.

Despite this, all of the soldiers identified by the journalist's investigative team were sent on missions after this report was published. The warnings of the United Nations have apparently been ignored.

States control their own forces

The reason for this is the way people are recruited for UN Blue Helmets missions. Namely, the control and selection of soldiers is left to the countries that send them.

Although governments must certify that they have no knowledge that the proposed soldiers have committed crimes against humanity, this information is poorly controlled. The United Nations, as they themselves state, generally controls only the top mission commanders and their deputies.

A UN spokesperson in a letter addressed to Deutsche Welle, Netri News and Zidojce Zeitung states that the vast majority of units do their job well, but also that the UN does not have the information or resources to control all the participants in the missions.

In the case of Bangladesh, the United Nations is leaving "the criminal government to check which officers have committed crimes," commented Menakshi Ganguly, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for Asia, with shock. RAB crimes, he claims, go largely unpunished in Bangladesh. In that country, as Ganguli adds, "there is no interest in calling people to account for crimes against humanity."

The United Nations is short of soldiers

The journalistic research team found that the UN is aware of the problem, but they themselves are in a dilemma.

Namely, according to UN data, 65.000 soldiers are currently on peacekeeping missions in countries such as South Sudan, the Central African Republic or in the Kashmir region.

A few decades ago, most units came from countries such as Finland, Canada or Ireland, but recently Western countries have been sending fewer and fewer soldiers.

As one insider explained to journalists, in the case of UN peacekeeping missions, the governments of Western countries always have to ask themselves if they are ready to bear the consequences. Because if their soldiers are killed, the government must justify itself before the investigative committee. Countries like Bangladesh do not have such problems.

Some members of the Blue Helmets - "quite brutal"

That's why Andrew Gilmore doesn't try to beautify the situation. "Honestly," he says, some members of the Blue Helmets "are quite brutal." Gilmore is a former UN diplomat.

Until recently, he was the Deputy Secretary General for Human Rights, and now he heads the Berghof Foundation in Berlin, which advocates for peace around the world.

He notes that sometimes entire contingents, and sometimes individual soldiers, were involved in crimes against humanity before joining the UN mission.

Still, Gilmore defends his former employer. The United Nations, he says, is doing everything it can to encourage countries to choose only those soldiers who have not committed crimes. Gilmore repeated this several times in the interview.

He also warns that the hands of the United Nations are tied, because if they exert too much pressure, then the states could withdraw their units. That would jeopardize entire peacekeeping missions, "and then tens of thousands of people die," says Gilmore.

A UN spokesperson contradicts that statement. He claims that the world organization has enough troops and that any threat to withdraw troops would have only a limited effect.

However, the example of Sri Lanka shows that there is pressure on the United Nations. In that country, where a civil war was fought in 2019, a new supreme military commander was appointed. Shavendra Silva commanded a division during the war, which, according to UN information, was responsible for numerous crimes against humanity.

After great public outrage, the UN announced that it would no longer accept Sri Lanka's participation in peacekeeping missions in the future. However, an exception is also foreseen - when "UN operations are exposed to serious operational risk", says the spokesman.

The UN seems to be using this "exception" generously: in 2019, Sri Lanka sent 687 of its soldiers to the UN Blue Helmets missions, and in 2020, after the appointment of Silva, there were 665.

At the end of the day, as one Western politician who is familiar with the workings of the UN says, nobody really cares who Bangladesh or other countries send.

"We are happy that we can even find enough soldiers for missions that are often dangerous," explains the politician.

Bangladesh even plans to increase its participation in UN missions. A general there proudly announced that the UN High Command had given Bangladesh the role of coordinator for creating a network of South Asian countries willing to send their troops. It shows "how much we are valued," said that general.

A UN spokesman confirmed that Bangladesh has a certain role in creating the network, but added that no member state "has been asked to be the coordinator."

Numerous inquiries that the investigative journalist team sent to the governments of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as to individual officers of those countries, have so far remained unanswered.

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