In My View
US sanctions on Bangladesh: A search for real reasons
During the 1971 Bangladesh War, the US had a tilt toward Pakistan. But the US-Bangladesh relations have been fairly good almost since the independence of Bangladesh. During this long period of time, government after government came and went in both countries, but relations between them remained always strong.
Over the last five decades, the US invested billions of dollars for development of Bangladesh and improving the lives of Bangladeshi people. Even today Bangladesh is the largest recipient of US assistance in Asia aside from Pakistan. The US is also the biggest donor to the Rohingya refugee assistance program and contributed to Bangladesh millions of dollars during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis.
The US and Bangladesh cooperate closely with each other on a range of issues including security, governance and development while the ties between the two countries go beyond the government-to-government level. At the June 2019 partnership dialogue, the governments of the two countries reaffirmed their enduring alliance and close cooperation on security, development, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and counterterrorism.
According to the US State Department, the two governments also agreed to continue to work together closely to advance a shared vision of a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and secure Indo-Pacific region. So, in accordance with the opinion of the US government itself, Bangladesh was already a strategic partner of America alongside Pakistan, India and what was prior to August 2021 the US- occupied Afghanistan in the South Asian region.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when former US President George W. Bush asked the world to choose a side in the US-led war on terror famously saying "you are either with us or against us -- there is no middle ground in this war," Bangladesh like most countries around the globe including many Arab and Muslim nations sided with America.
Since then, the two countries have been working together to combat terrorism. The Awami League government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has done a commendable job in keeping Bangladesh safe from terrorist attacks barring one major incident at a café in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan neighbourhood. During the government of Sheikh Hasina, some religious extremists were also tried to the full extent of the law and awarded either capital punishment or lengthy sentences.
So, what went so terribly wrong that prompted the new Biden administration to take this totally unexpected step of sanctioning Bangladesh along with North Korea, Myanmar and China? These three countries are extremely unpopular to the government as well as the people of the United States. On the contrary, Bangladesh has all along been a moderate Muslim state with progressive outlook and strong belief in the democratic values. This country is also a strong US ally.
So, again what was it that put Bangladesh, a strategic partner of America, on the US sanction list alongside North Korea, Myanmar and China? The US Treasury Department's sudden announcement of sanctioning Bangladesh caught the government and most people of this country totally off guard as there was no prior intimation about this significant development even through the diplomatic channel. The US sanctions on Bangladesh alongside North Korea, Myanmar and China have seriously damaged the reputation of the country across the world.
Even though the December 10 press release of the US Treasury Department mentioned that the Rapid Action Battalion or RAB, Bangladesh's elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism police unit as well as its six former and present top officials were being sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for what it described as "widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse" by the RAB, the actual reasons behind this extraordinary step, first by an ally against an ally, might have been something else as well.
As a matter of fact, there were some allegations of human rights abuse against the Western-trained specialized police unit of Bangladesh. Some local as well as international human rights organizations made those allegations. But RAB also received praise by many Bangladeshis for their anti-drugs and counterterrorism operations. This police unit of Bangladesh was founded in 2004 and since then they have been following the same rules of engagement while dealing with crime and no US administration ever put them under any kind of sanctions.
So, why sanction now and by the Biden administration? The Biden administration first excluded Bangladesh from its virtually held global Democracy Summit even though Bangladesh received the status of a partially democratic nation on the Democracy Index of Freedom House, an American think tank, alongside many summit participants including India and Pakistan. And then on the International Human Rights Day, only five days before Bangladesh's golden jubilee of Victory Day, the Biden administration placed Bangladesh on the new US sanction list.
There might have been a breakdown of relations between the new US administration in Washington and Bangladesh government. There might have been some other reasons or maybe the Biden administration was disappointed when Bangladesh rejected the US request for providing temporary shelter to some Afghan refugees after the fall of Kabul in August last year. The US officials probably took that rejection from Bangladesh side as a snub and thus responded first by excluding Bangladesh from the Democracy Summit and then by placing this country under US sanctions.
It is hard to believe that the Biden administration sanctioned Bangladesh only for the alleged human rights abuse by the members of Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion. Because no previous US administration ever sanctioned Bangladesh even though some allegations were made by some international and local human rights groups against RAB's operations, especially about the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. And secondly, there are many US allies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East who are accused by rights groups of routinely violating human rights but they have not been placed under US sanctions.
Therefore, the US sanctions against Bangladesh seem to be a response of the Biden administration to Bangladesh's rejection to the US request for providing temporary shelter to Afghan refugees after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. But Bangladesh, a country which has already been hosting over a million refugees from Myanmar, barely had any other option but to say no to the US request for sheltering some Afghans even though temporarily. Now the question is: How this delicate matter--an earnest request from an ally to an ally at a very critical time--was handled by the Bangladesh side.
Was it handled with proper respect in a friendly manner? Was it handled with all due diplomatic niceties and sophistications as the request came from Bangladesh's most important ally and development partner and the world's only super power? It must have been handled appropriately as Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is run by well-trained, experienced and knowledgeable civil servants. It is also currently headed by a man who is US-educated, soft-spoken and diplomatic even though he is not a career diplomat. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen knows well how to handle a delicate matter in a sophisticated way.
Bangladesh-China relations have been steadily warming up for the last several years with signing of new contracts in a variety of fields. The people-to-people relations between the two countries are also rising at an accelerated pace. Taking note of Bangladesh's rapidly growing relations with China, the Biden administration might have fired a warning shot at Bangladesh by imposing sanctions. But this argument may not be very convincing because Pakistan has all along been one of the closest allies of China but the US never punished Pakistan for its ever-warming relations with that country.
Had it been only for the abuse of human rights, the US would have sanctioned many more countries around the world. Whatever the actual reasons behind the US sanctions on Bangladesh are, these measures are purely temporary unlike the American sanctions on North Korea and Myanmar. The Biden administration itself will rescind the sanctions placed upon Bangladesh--hopefully sooner than later. Bangladesh doesn't need a lobbying firm for withdrawal of US sanctions on it. All it requires is a continuous close liaison between the two governments through both diplomatic and non-diplomatic channels.
Bangladesh government should listen to the viewpoints of the officials of Biden administration and address their concerns if they have any in a spirit of goodwill and friendship. The US and Bangladesh are close allies and they will continue to be so in future. America will remain engaged with Bangladesh. The US will never abandon a country it has helped build investing billions of dollars over five long decades.
The writer is a Toronto-based journalist who also writes for the Toronto
Sun as a guest columnist