Are the RAB sanctions a change in US policy toward Bangladesh? | Human Rights News
Dhaka, Bangladesh – Even though the bilateral relationship between the United States and Bangladesh is extensive and has historical roots, recent moves by President Joe Biden’s administration have raised concerns in the South Asian nation.
First, Bangladesh was not among the 111 countries invited to Biden’s high-level virtual democracy summit, which was held on December 9-10.
Then on Friday, the United States imposed human rights-related sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its current and former officials, accusing them of involvement. in hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions since 2009.
The sanctions mean that the RAB will not be allowed to own property in the United States or engage in any financial transaction with any US agency or personnel. The sanctions also bar seven current and former senior RAB officials, including Benazir Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police, from entering the United States.
Meanwhile, some local media said former Bangladesh Army chief General Aziz Ahmed’s US visa had also been revoked and he had been declared “undesirable” in the United States.
In February this year, an investigation by Al Jazeera – All the Prime Minister’s Men – revealed how General Ahmed helped his brother Haris Ahmed escape a prison sentence for a murder in 1996, amid other allegations of gross nepotism and professional misconduct against the army officer.
So far, Dhaka’s reaction to US sanctions on the RAB has been visceral and sporadic, with Bangladesh’s foreign minister saying the US “may have only invited weak democracies” to the summit and the Home Secretary saying the sanctions against the paramilitary force were based on “exaggerated reporting”.
The Foreign Office, however, summoned Earl R Miller, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, on Saturday to express Dhaka’s disappointment with the sanctions imposed on the RAB.
Human rights violations
The United States is Bangladesh’s main export destination, with shipments amounting to almost $7 billion, of which about 90% is ready-to-wear garments (RMG). Bangladesh is home to one of the most competitive RMG industries in the world, boosting the country’s annual growth rate by an average of 7% over the past two decades.
The United States is also one of the South Asian nation’s biggest development partners, home to some 160 million people, and has trained its security and police on several occasions. According to the US State Department, Bangladesh is the largest recipient of US aid in Asia after Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Against this backdrop, experts say, the recent US moves appear to be a “warning” to Bangladesh of its continued slide on human rights and its “fold towards authoritarianism” under Sheikh Hasina’s tenure.
Mubashar Hasan, an assistant fellow at the University of Western Sydney, told Al Jazeera that the US sanctions show the Biden administration has made a “significant policy shift” not just on Bangladesh, but in US foreign policy in General, by placing electoral democracy and human rights at the heart of its external relations.
“Perhaps Biden understood that if the idea of democracy lost its appeal abroad, it would be difficult to distinguish the United States or the West from authoritarian regimes,” Hasan said.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, when announcing sanctions against the RAB, said: “We are committed to placing human rights at the center of our foreign policy, and we reaffirm this commitment by using the appropriate tools and authorities to draw attention to and promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses, wherever they occur.
Bangladeshi human rights activist Nur Khan Liton told Al Jazeera that well-documented reports clearly implicate the RAB has been implicated in human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.
“We have long called on the government of Bangladesh to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the disappearances and crossfire, but the government is ignoring our call,” he said.
“The United States obviously observes the state of human rights and democracy in a country and makes decisions based on credible reports. It is therefore not surprising that the RAB is hit with such sanctions.
Over the past decade, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released four reports on the RAB, detailing its rights abuses. In its 2011 report, titled Crossfire: Human Rights Abuses by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, HRW focused entirely on extrajudicial killings by the paramilitary force.
HRW’s 2017 report on secret detentions and enforced disappearances, titled We Don’t Have It, identified the RAB as responsible for many of these incidents.
One of the individuals sanctioned, RAB deputy chief KM Azad, however, defended the force’s operations, saying it never violated human rights.
“If bringing down a criminal under the law is a violation of human rights, then we have no objection to violating those human rights for the benefit of the country,” he said. during an interview with reporters after the US sanctions announcement last week.
In a written statement to Al Jazeera, a US State Department spokesperson said, “We highly value our partnership with the Government of Bangladesh and work closely together on regional and global challenges. We discussed with Bangladeshi leaders the importance of respecting human rights and the rule of law. We will continue to raise our concerns even as we cooperate on other bilateral issues.
But some experts believe the US actions against Bangladesh have wider implications.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the sanctions suggest the Biden administration is “unwilling to invest Dhaka with the strategic importance which many believe it deserves”. .
“After all, the United States does not sanction the leaders of countries with which it wishes to work closely. The timing is certainly a bit surprising, given that just a few weeks ago a senior US State Department official was in Dhaka to sing the praises of the relationship,” Kugelman told Al Jazeera.
He said Bangladesh could “appear to be in a prominent position” in South Asia’s geopolitics as it straddles the Indian Ocean and is part of a “standoff” for the influence between regional rivals India and China.
“A showdown that Dhaka doesn’t want to be part of,” Kugelman said. “So one would expect the US to want to step up its engagement, but this decision to sanction the RAB suggests that this may be a misreading of Washington’s thinking on Bangladesh.”
He said the United States may have made the decision “not to distance itself from Dhaka, but to send a strong message that it wants to engage more”, but only if Dhaka improves its record in matter of rights.
Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor at Illinois State University, told Al Jazeera that the recent US moves are not markers of a complete shift in US policy towards Bangladesh, but an indication that the “US patience is running out”.
“For a long time, Washington used to see Bangladesh through the Indian prism, but this (sanction) indicates that it is disassociating Bangladesh from its Indian policy,” he said.
“These measures are also consistent with the Biden administration’s emphasis on human rights. These measures will create tensions between these two countries.
Riaz said whether or not other countries like the UK or Canada join the US in its action against Bangladesh will determine the effects of the sanctions.
“But the question is whether the US measures will be counterproductive and will alienate Bangladesh from the United States, which will be detrimental to Bangladesh’s economic and security interests. There is a clear indication that China will take advantage of the situation and commit to increasing its influence,” he said.