International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh
Activists and former freedom fighters who fought against Pakistan in the 1971 war demonstrate following the sentencing against Jamaat-e-Islami party leader Motiur Rahman Nizami outside the International Crimes Tribunal court in Dhaka on 29 October 2014Getty

More than 40 years after hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the Pakistani army and affiliated paramilitary forces during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, no one has yet been held accountable for the atrocities committed.

The genocide started with Operation Searchlight, ordered by the government of West Pakistan and carried out in East Pakistan, current Bangladesh.

The operation aimed to take control of the main cities in East Pakistan and eliminate the opposition, but resulted in the death of thousands of civilians.

It is believed that between 300,000 and one million people were killed during the genocide.

The first attempt to bring the genocide perpetrators to justice was made when Bangladesh set up its own International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in a bid to try the so-called "genocide collaborators", as Pakistani army members, the primary perpetrators, could not be tried on Bengali soil.

However, since its inception, the ICT has been criticised by the UN and several right groups, including Human Rights Watch, who argued that the tribunal fails to observe international law standards and that its rulings are flawed.

The widespread criticism prompted human rights barrister and author Geoffrey Robertson to investigate the modus operandi of the ICT, only to conclude in his report that the tribunal does not adhere to any internationally recognised standard and that the UN should develop an international tribunal to try the suspects.

During a conference held at Doughty Street Chambers, London, Robertson explained that Bangladesh refused the offer of the UN and the international community to help set up the tribunal as it wanted to sentence to death those found guilty of war crimes.

"It is rare that a government rejects millions and millions offered by the UN," Robertson said. "But it is now clear that Bangladesh rejected the offer in order to ensure that death sentences were carried out as international courts now do not impose the death penalty.

"Five years on from its inception, the tribunal has sentenced 14 defendants to death and executed one and it seems that it is ordering the execution of the government's main opponents, mainly from the Jamaat, an Islamic political group, and former ministers of the BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party], the main opposition group."

Robertson also explained that according to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, implemented in Bangladesh in 1973, those convicted of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity, shall be awarded "sentence of death, or such other punishment proportionate to the gravity of the crime as appears to the Tribunal to be just and proper".

Based on the act, Robertson said that death sentences should be reserved only for the "worst perpetrators of the genocide" and not the collaborators.

In his report, he wrote: "When the Act was re-activated in 2009, for use against those who had assisted the Pakistani army, their guilt, although heavy, was clearly of a lesser order. International law bodies and NGOs pleaded with the government to abjure the death penalty.

"Had it done so, it would have received considerable assistance (including UN financial assistance) in establishing the court. But it refused all offers, evincing a determination that the Jamaat leaders – its political enemies – should hang if convicted of assisting the army's atrocities."

In light of his report, Robertson believes that the UN should now intervene.

"The UN should take over the work of the tribunal and indict some of the Pakistani generals who are still alive. This should be done according to international justice standards," he concluded.