A Discussion with Manzoor Hasan OBE, Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Justice at BRAC University, Bangladesh

With: Manzoor Hasan Berkley Center Profile

July 28, 2020

Background: Manzoor Hasan has long focused on institutional reforms and capacity building, in the challenging context of South Asia and at a global level. A legal and policy expert who is also well versed with compliance requirements of international statutes and conventions, he has extensive experience working with civil society organizations and community groups in promoting good governance.  At present he leads the Centre for Peace and Justice, a new and ambitious program within BRAC University. Among many other issues he focuses on the Rohingya refugee crisis. In this discussion (by zoom) with Katherine Marshall on July 11, he describes his longstanding work with BRAC (the world’s largest NGO), immersion in governance issues including work to support legal access for poor and vulnerable groups and to fight corruption, the foundation of the Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ) at BRAC University, CPJ’s work on religious roles in Bangladeshi society, and CPJ’s and his own role in addressing the Rohingya crisis.

"In many ways, religion is a glue, which I think will have to bring all the rest together. If we ignore it, we ignore it at our peril… Bangladesh has done a lot and built much social capital. But the social capital that we have generated can be squandered very easily if we do not address this issue of religion in a sensible, intelligent way. Social capital can be undermined because of our ignorance, or dogmatic thinking, or standpoint."- Manzoor Hasan

To begin, how are you doing in the current COVID-19 emergency?

Almost four months ago, 13th March to be precise, my wife, Shireen, and I moved from Dhaka to our village home in Nagbari . It has been an amazing shift and experience, and we have actually decided to settle here. We have a very good internet connection, most of the time and are doing all our work from here: Shireen is teaching online and I am running CPJ. We had a meeting today of 26-strength CPJ team, online. It’s quite remarkable how we all have been able to adapt to this new environment.  Over the last four months, we have observed the changing behavior of the villagers around us.  In the early days of COVID-19, they resigned themselves to the protection of Allah and carried on with their seasonal agricultural activities, such as, harvesting.  Four months down the road, and thankfully villagers unaffected by COVID-19, they are more concerned about the worsening flood rather than COVID-19.

How far are you from Dhaka?

We are 100 kilometers north of Dhaka, in the district of Tangail. Going up north from Dhaka, a few kilometers from the Jamuna Bridge, we are in the village of Nagbari.  It takes us around four hours to come from Dhaka. A new highway has yet to be completed.

How is BRAC University doing in the crisis? And CPJ (Centre for Peace and Justice)?

We've gone online. BRAC University had already invested heavily in online and online platforms, and we've be able therefore to go online quite effectively. We are all getting ready to do online teaching, all online. It’s going to be interesting to see what happen. Most of the work that we do is in the area of research and advocacy, and some pilot programmatic interventions, like those we are doing in Cox's Bazar. It’s quite an interesting mix of activities.

We don't do that much teaching in CPJ, though we are planning to do more. We've started short courses and will add to them and we are ready to offer credit courses at master’s level. The curriculum and courses are ready. I was just on a call about the issue. The University Grants Commission, typically I fear for a government bureaucracy, are making it difficult for us to get the status of an institute which would allow us to offer credit courses. The reason they give us is that BRAC University has no separate campus and until the university moves to the new campus (which is now under construction) they won’t give us that status. That’s a very bureaucratic line to take because we're doing all the work that we need to do. They're punishing us for the fact that the university hasn't gone to a new campus. Frankly, they're just being bloody minded about it.

How did you get involved in CPJ?

CPJ itself and my involvement were born in a way that I found both unexpected and fascinating. I was with the university from 2005 to 2012, when I started the Institute of Governance Studies, and in 2012 I left. I wanted a break to do some work that I've been thinking about for quite a while: the research I did on the power structure became a book published in 2014. During 2013 I was busy working on that, moving around for research. At the beginning of 2014, I think it was January or February, I got a phone call from Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. I was actually travelling to do some field research, on my way to a place called Brahmanbaria, going past Comilla from Dhaka.

Normally when I'm traveling I read, putting my phone down so it does not disturb me, picking it up occasionally to see what's happening. On this trip when I picked up my phone, I saw 13 or 14 missed calls, from Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. When I called him back he asked where I was and said he wanted to have a word with me.

I went to see him after finishing my fieldwork. His opening comment was that the Millennium Development Goals were coming to an end (this was 2014). He was working with George Soros and Madeleine Albright and others on the issue of legal empowerment for the poor. He was part of the commission whose report became quite a significant document in terms of how the Sustainable Development Goals and specifically SDG 16 finally came about [SDG 16 focuses on peace, justice, and strong institutions]. He said: "Look, we are working on all these issues. I would like a center where we could look at them more specifically." Thus he was looking and thinking ahead and he wanted me to get involved and return to the university: “You've just set up the Governance Institute, and now you've left. Why don’t you look at this?” I asked for some time to think about it, though obviously, I knew I was going to say yes to him. I discussed Sir Abed’s idea with Shireen, and knowing full well that my heart was with it, she gave her nod!

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s thought was to put together a new center, a new institute, which would look very much at multidisciplinary issues, topics like fragility, peace, justice, and coalitions. At that time there was quite a big issue in terms of extremism in our country and he was keen that the university should start looking at these issues. The new center would have them as its mandate. That was the essence of the discussion between the two of us.

I went back to him and told him that indeed I’d like to do something like that. He said, "Okay, I'll give you a pot of money." He gave me $50,000 and told me to start the work immediately. And that's how it all started, in March 2014.

I remember doing a scanning of what was happening in Bangladesh and in South Asia in relation to legal empowerment, as Sir Abed was quite keen and focused on that topic. We started looking at the issue of legal empowerment of the poor and organized a workshop in December 2014, where we invited people from different organizations across South Asia and also from outside South Asia. We presented a paper which gave different options on what the center should do. The consensus at the end of the two-day workshop was that we should be focusing on the issue of paralegalism: how can we promote paralegal work? This was not new for South Asia; it has been going on for quite a while. However, the challenge was how to institutionalize the work of paralegals, and to increase the capacity of organizations that are working with paralegals, so that was the direction we took. At the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015, we started this capacity building work, basically Training of Trainers (TOTs) in the area of paralegal activities. We involved several organizations across South Asia and developed a module, bringing together all the leading paralegal organizations in Bangladesh. This became our main focus in the first couple of years.

What was the challenge that CPJ took on in terms of justice?

CPJ started its work focusing on how to institutionalize paralegal work, and how the informal justice sector can improve the quality of lives of the poor. That is vital because, in a basic sense, the formal justice sector really doesn't cater for the poor and the poor really do not exist when it comes to the formal justice sector. The formal justice sector, in any case, is amazingly corrupt and inefficient. If you go to the courts, it takes years for a case to come to an end. It can take a couple of generations for a matter to conclude and have any result. Being a lawyer myself, I know that because I also operated in that system when I came back from the UK after doing my bar. I saw that reality, and it was probably the resulting frustration that drove me out of the legal profession. That's a different story altogether, but it was really the reason that drove the early work that we started to do in the area of the informal justice sector, and particularly the focus on paralegal work in 2015 and 2016.

Our core mandate, therefore, was legal empowerment. When the SDGs were approved, including SDG 16, we focused more specifically on some of the targets linked to SDG 16. We thus got off the ground, with a lot of inspiration and a vision from Sir Abed. He wanted to have an institute within the university looking at these issues. I feel privileged and lucky to be the person who managed to get this off the ground, and here we are.

How did you and CPJ get involved with the issues involving the Rohingya?

The massive influx of Rohingya refugees to Cox’s Bazaar took place in August 2017. By sheer coincidence, I was actually in Cox's Bazar when that happened, and I saw how the local people responded and came forward to help the refugees. They sheltered them, fed them, and did all they had to do for survival. I got deeply interested, and felt that this is something that is well within CPJ's mandate and that we should really be focusing on the Rohingya issue. That’s how we got involved with the justice and accountability issues for the Rohingya, including research and policy action. That, of course, is a different chapter altogether in CPJ’s story.

We’ll return to the Rohingya issue. How does your work with legal empowerment link to the informal justice system? What is the core of that today in Bangladesh? Is it a village mechanism? Is there a common system across Bangladesh or does it vary widely?

There is a word for the informal justice sector, the traditional form of arbitration and mediation: shalish. In India and other countries it's called the panchayat, but in Bangladesh, it's called shalish. It's a remarkable traditional form of resolving disputes in the villages, in the countryside. Basically, you have the village elders coming together and people bring their problems, whether it's matrimonial, land related, stealing any chattel, etc.. People come to this elders group that was basically made up of men, who would sit and decide, after listening to both sides, what should be the solution to this problem and what decision they should give to a particular problem.

This system was, in the past, widely accepted by the villagers. In most cases that would bring the matter to an end. But as we also know, there are challenges in these traditional mechanisms. They are very much anti-female, anti-poor, as they have been very much male dominated. That is something that has been well recognized as a deficiency within the existing traditional mechanism. Another was that once a dispute reaches a point where there is conflict, and people are either injured or die because of a conflict, that becomes a criminal matter, and it then goes to the courts. It then goes outside the jurisdiction of the informal justice mechanism.

In Bangladesh, in the 1970s and into the 1980s, a large number of nonprofit organizations started to look into these shalish mechanisms, the traditional institutions. They changed some of the ways of doing things and some of the values within the shalish mechanism. What has emerged is known as the NGO mediated shalish. They looked particularly at the issues for women, and how women's interests can be protected. So, the NGOs like BRAC, NGOs like BLAST [Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust] and Ain o Salish Kendra, the Bangladesh Women's Lawyers Association, and many, many other organizations, in the 1970s and mainly in the 1980s started developing their own mechanisms and principles and policies in relation to these traditional arbitration approaches. This became known as NGO mediated shalish. [see for example ODI “Getting to grips with power Can NGOs improve justice in Bangladesh?” https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/5922b1194.pdf] They basically made it more poor friendly and women friendly and it became part of an overall nationwide structure that we now have.

So, basically, now we have two forms of systems that operate within the informal justice mechanism. One is the government run legal aid mechanism. The other is a nonprofit, NGO led mechanism. There was a time when the NGO led arbitration mechanism was actually much, much better and was doing extremely well. A lot of donor funding came into NGO run legal aid projects, and it became very popular in Bangladesh. For example, BRAC deals with a huge number of such cases, and if you look at the amount of financial benefits that they manage to get for women, for example when it comes to family matters, it's quite mind-boggling. This has over the years become a very important part of the informal justice mechanism, the informal justice structure in Bangladesh. Now, as governments saw that the NGO were doing so well, they also started developing their own government run legal aid mechanisms and put a lot of money into that. This has improved the system. I would say that they are actually doing quite a good job nowadays.

So we have now have the two systems. One is the government led system, the other the NGO led informal justice sector. The latter has played a very important role, leading eventually to what is known as the village courts. The village courts which have been around and established for the last ten years in Bangladesh are in a way the result of this informal justice initiative that has been going on in Bangladesh for the last 40 or 45 years.

And the paralegals you are training would support both mechanisms?

Basically, the paralegals that we are training and that the NGOs have been training over the years would serve both the formal and the informal systems.

And where does this fit with the religious family law? Were the religious leaders part of the village systems or is that a separate, distinct format?

It’s not actually separate. When we talk about shalish, the old traditional shalish, you have, and I say it deliberately, men sitting, giving judgment. You would also have the religious men, the Imams, the religious elders on the village taking part. When it comes to family matters, as you know, it's the Sharia law which applies. This was formalized under the Muslim Ordinance Law during the 1960s and it has been incorporated into our mainstream laws. The traditional shalish mechanisms used to follow exactly the same approach, talak in terms of divorce for example, following the traditional way of doing things. They would take part in that, the traditional approach. With the NGO mediated shalish, it's done in a different way, as I said, more women friendly and poor friendly, but the law is the same. Hopefully, they're applying the law in a more equitable, more transparent way, and in a way that is not discriminatory. Things have improved, but I have to say that the problems have not gone away. They are still there. Women are still facing problems, and the rest of it, but that’s a much bigger story. We'll have to look at the overall structure of the society to get some answers on that particular issue. But the religious and traditional village systems are not separate. It's the same structure which will deal with the family matters.

You say it's informal. Is there a way of appealing through, for example, an Islamic hierarchy?

When it comes to the traditional, the shalish, basically you don't have any mechanism whereby you go and appeal to, say, the lowest court in the district. That has a separate domain of its own. So if the shalish didn't work: for example, managing to give an answer in a divorce issue, then people would go to the courts and deal with it at that level, involving the formal structure. But there's no appeal mechanism from the informal to the formal. That ideal mechanism doesn't exist. There are two separate domains, so to speak. Even with the village courts that they have established now, again, there's no right of appeal from the decision of the village court to the formal court. This is a funny situation: it’s a court which is recognized by law, but decisions cannot be appealed against from the village court to the lower courts or even to the high court. If you think about it, we have the informal, the NGO mediated shalish, mainly. Then you have the village court. And then you have the formal courts. So now we have three tiers; without the village court it was basically two tiers.

And is there a distinctive Muslim or shall we say Buddhist or Hindu mechanism that is separate from the secular? I had understood that family matters are often governed within each religious tradition. How does that work within these structures?

Even within the formal structure that we have, the law has come up with its own solution when it comes to non-Muslims. To take an example of a Hindu couple going through divorce, just a week ago, a Hindu guy came to me and said, "I'm having difficulties with my wife. I've been married to her. I have two daughters, but she's not staying with me. She's not living with me. She's gone to her parent's house. What do I do?" He thought that I, being a lawyer, would probably have the answer. I agreed to check and get back to him, because I don't practice anymore. I know what a Muslim would do, but what about a Hindu person? My colleague said that, "In our law if it's a Hindu couple, we have provisions, how the Hindus should deal with it, how the Buddhists should deal with such family matters." For example, in this particular case, I was told by this lawyer friend of mine that if the husband and wife agree to separate they can just do an affidavit and go through a lawyer and get it signed and notarized and that would be a proper document, enough for them to be separated. If they don't agree, if one of them says, "No, I don't want to do this. I want to carry on, I want to live with you," or whatever, then the matter can go to the court, and there will be hearing and then the court will decide and give a judgment on that matter. So, as far as I'm aware, the legal framework gives provisions for people from other religions to deal with their own family matters in their own way. There is in a way a secular step that one can take in order to deal with these family matters irrespective of religion or person.

Let me back up to a first question, where did you grow up and what made you interested in law?

My first 14 years was in Bangladesh. In 1971, I was a 14-year-old, and the Liberation War started. My father was very much involved with politics, and I was the only son. There was a lot of uncertainty; my Dad was in hiding and worried that if they couldn't find him they would try to look for me, and if they found me my fate was uncertain. So my parents decided that I should be packed off to England. My Mum's brother who was in Exeter in Devon, in England, said he would be very happy to sponsor me and he got me over to England, to a boarding school just outside Exeter. That's where I ended up in September 1971. I then basically went through my schooling, college and then university in England, finishing my degree in 1979.

By that time, I was quite keen to get back to Bangladesh. I had heard a lot of good things about BRAC, and I wanted to go back and work in Bangladesh. So I returned, met with Abed, and told him that I wanted to join BRAC. Abed, by the way, is a cousin of both my Mom and my Dad; they're all first cousins, so related. Abed asked if I was serious and I said I absolutely was serious about wanting to join BRAC. He picked me up one day from my house and took me to a place called Jamalpur, which is straight up north from Dhaka. At that time, in 1979, there was something of a famine going on there, and BRAC was doing some famine relief work. So that's how I joined BRAC for the first time in 1979.

Thus, to answer your question, I grew up partly in Bangladesh and partly in the UK. Then I left for England again in 1980 to read for the bar. That decision was in a way very much influenced by my grandfather, who was a lawyer and a judge. I was very close to my grandfather and very fond of him. And he said one day that it was his wish that I would go into law.  That's how I went back to England and was called to the bar from Lincoln's Inn. I then went into practice in the UK. and carried on with my legal work till 1995, when I came back to Bangladesh once again. Thus I have spent 21 years in the UK. I grew up in two cultures and two countries.

How did you get involved in Transparency International, TI?

I came back to Bangladesh, as I said, in 1995. I joined Dr. Kamal Hossain, in his chambers. He was, as you know, one of the authors of the constitution and he encouraged me to come back and join him. By this time I was married to Shireen and we had three boys. We all came back in 1995. I started going to the courts and was immersed in practice. But what I saw made me very frustrated. The amount of corruption, particularly in the judiciary and the opaqueness in the system, were horrifying. After practicing in the UK, I was very unhappy at all that was happening.

I probably would have gone back to the UK, but one day I saw on Dr. Kamal Hossain’s table a letterhead: Transparency International. That got me curious: what is Transparency International? I found out that Dr. Kamal Hossain was actually, along with Dr. Peter Eigen, one of the founders of Transparency International. He was also instrumental in setting up the board here in Bangladesh in 1994. I became interested, and to cut a long story short, I told Dr. Kamal Hossain that I was going to quit law and I was interested in getting the chapter going in Bangladesh. That's how I got involved with Transparency International in August, 1996, to be accurate. I joined Transparency Bangladesh as its first executive director. That's how it started. I would say that I joined TI mainly because of my unhappiness and frustration with the legal system and corruption in the system. I was the executive director of the chapter for seven years. I carried on until 2003, when I went to Berlin as the Regional Director for Asia Pacific.

How long were you in Berlin?

For a year. The deal was with Peter Eigen and David Nussbaum, who was TI’s Managing Director, who asked me to come to Berlin. I agreed, but for not more than a year because I did not want to spend time in Europe. I wanted to get back and do my work in Bangladesh. They agreed and so I spent a year in Berlin, a fantastic time with Peter and others.

In 2004, I returned to Bangladesh and, for the second time, I joined BRAC, as the deputy executive director. I remember well December, Christmas 2004, when the tsunami happened, and I was immediately sent off to Sri Lanka to set up BRAC to undertake relief and rehabilitation work. That's how BRAC, Sri Lanka started. I spent around eight months in Sri Lanka in 2004 and mainly 2005.

I spent a few more months in administration but my heart was really with governance. That was when I convinced Abed that BRAC University should have a governance institute. In 2005 the Center for Governance Studies, BRAC University, started, which then became Institute of Governance Studies, and which is now known as BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BIGD.

Are you still involved with either TI or with the institute?

I'm not involved with TI. When I left TI I became involved with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption Coalition, and spent three years as the chair of the coalition. My involvement was not with TI but with the coalition. And once I left the Governance Institute in 2012, I remained as an advisor for a while, but I was not actively involved.

As you know, our partnership with CPJ builds on what I call three questions; what's religion got to do with it? Does it matter? And if so, how and how does that translate into policy? After Jim Wolfensohn drafted me to the task, I became fascinated by the topic. I'm interested in how you see this religious connection. Is this something you've dealt with before or is it a fresh look? I was in a meeting with Sir Abed once in Washington, and asked the question from the audience about how religion was involved. His answer was “as little as possible”.


Yes. He went on to say that BRAC did what was compulsory in its schools, with teaching about religion because it was the law. I'm interested in that dimension.

I've heard the same chord, the same sentence, from Abed, when I raised this issue in different ways. He was not keen at all that religion should be something that we should focus on. With all respect, I would disagree with him on that. I'm not a religious person, but I'm not a neo religious person or atheist. I feel that religion plays a very important role in our lives. Particularly in a society like ours I think it's a very important issue. For CPJ, with all the developments that we have seen since 9/11, religion has become a central issue in our lives, not just our private lives, but our public lives, and we have to deal with these issues. There are so many misperceptions, so many misleading issues that people raise that we must talk about.

There is a need for a proper study of religion, in ways that can help us to be able to communicate to a whole range of people; young, old, urban, rural, literate, illiterate, and so on. We should be able to do that, to have that conversation. And we have neglected to take religion into account in this way. Religion, as we know, is all over the place: it's pervasive, it's involved in every issue. And during this COVID-19 emergency, I can see, sitting here in the village, how religion is playing a role. And it can be in ways that are negative, because of the way that our people perceive religion, as well as positive and life-giving. So I have always felt that this is something that we need to face head on, not to hide, not to avoid, but to look at it and disaggregate it and then communicate messages that will make sense to different people, in different ways.

Samia [Huq] has been sharing her own, long-standing work in this area for quite a while, and spoke about the project we are involved with together. I have always agreed that CPJ is a fantastic platform to pursue these issues, because we have a mandate that would certainly accommodate the issue of religion in the work that we do. That is why I felt that we needed to look at it, and if we don't look at it, then there's going to be a big hole in the work that we do. Especially now, with the central issues of extremism and fragilities that we are facing, and with youth mobilization and with the inequalities that we have in the society, and now with COVID-19, and the unknowns as to how it is going to play out, we must focus on these issues.

In many ways, religion is a glue, which I think will have to bring all the rest together. And if we ignore it, we ignore it at our peril.

This is why, in conversations I had with Abed, when he had a way of dismissing religion, I found it somewhat strange. I was, what's the word, dissatisfied. Why is he reacting this way? Why does he push it aside? I really don't have an answer as to why he did that. But certainly, till the very end, I know from conversations that I had that he wouldn't be very supportive of the work that we're doing now on the religious issues.

But I don't think we can wish away religion. Right now, I can hear the call for prayers going around, from all over the place [in my village]. And this is something which is going to remain for years and years and years. In whichever society we live, people have their own religions, and they have their own beliefs, and we need to look seriously into it.

What I find very interesting in the work that you and Samia are doing, and the workshops that we have organized now over the last 12 months, is the kind of discourse that can take place. I am convinced that it can actually be a new kind of inclusive discourse that brings people together. This is so important for us now in our society: to be patient, to be understanding and to listen, and start a conversation, which will bring us together. And religion, I think, can play a very significant role in terms of bringing that cohesiveness in our society.

The last point that I would make is that Bangladesh has done a lot and built much social capital. But the social capital that we have generated can be squandered very easily if we do not address this issue of religion in a sensible, intelligent way. Social capital can be undermined because of our ignorance, or dogmatic thinking or standpoint. That's the way I look at it.

I think that's very wise. I'm seeing issues coming together especially around what people mean by values and of course the meaning of justice, and how people's spoken or unspoken values are reflected in the way they understand the religious dimension of their lives. But it's also interwoven so that untangling the different dimensions can often be difficult.

A last quick question on the Rohingya issue: do you see any solution? The situation seems so stuck in a completely unacceptable intellectual and political situation.

With the Rohingyas, I feel that they're here to stay. The Burmese have pushed them into Bangladesh over the last 20 to 30 years. And now this time, they have pushed a large number into Bangladesh. They have thought about the geopolitics. That geopolitics is such that they (Myanmar] are not going to be under any pressure internationally to take them back. For us, for Bangladesh, you can say that it's a political, diplomatic failure, but whatever it is, they're here to stay.

This is where Abed said something very interesting, if I remember his words correctly: "What is one million when we have 160 million? We can absorb the one million and they can become an asset for us." He said something to that effect and I totally agree with him on that point. It is hard to say this publicly because of the work that we're doing [on justice], but I certainly feel that the long term solution really is for Bangladesh to take them as part of our society, train them up, give them the kind of resources that they need, build the capacity, so they can become a productive force for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has done a tremendous amount of work in terms of relief and rehabilitation and humanitarian intervention. It's been amazing. I hope that with the kind of work a lot of us are doing that we'll be able to slowly change the policy direction of government and make the Rohingya population more part of the society, the community of Cox's Bazar and Bangladesh, by giving them opportunities, livelihoods, education. Then even if they can go back to Myanmar they will be much stronger at the end of the day. Or if they go to a third country, they will be more sought after in those countries. And if they are in Bangladesh they will be productive members of the community.

So I don't see them going back to Myanmar and even if they do, it's going to be insignificant numbers, a token that they may take back into Myanmar. The vast majority are going to stay here. It's a duty on our part to alleviate their suffering. The kind of suffering that they are going through now in the camps, the trafficking of women and girls, and all the rest of it, we should be addressing.

Your focus on developing them as human capital seems to represent a critical policy choice at this juncture.

It's a policy choice at the end of the day. But how do we decide on some of these issues? There's a huge deficiency in terms of how we are arriving at these policy decisions. And given the situation that we find ourselves in, it's going to be even more challenging. But I think we just have to keep hammering this point over and over.

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