Despite strong bilateral relations between Bangladesh and US, the recent steps of the Biden administration have raised concerns. The relations of the two countries are wide ranging and have long historical roots. With President Joe Biden in office, Bangladesh definitely hoped for a inclining tie with the US, but the recent incidents is somewhat projecting the opposite. Bangladesh has transformed itself as a role model of development during the last decade and US has been a strong development partner. This relationship seems to be moving downward right now. Hence, strong diplomatic effort is required right now to improve the relationship between the two nations.
Bangladesh was not among the 111 countries invited to Biden’s high-profile virtual Summit for Democracy, held on 9-10 Dec, 2021 and on 10 Dec the US 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 killings since 2009. Though RAB was established in 2004, questioning their integrity only since 2009 creates further questions over the US administration’s intention over the current regime in Bangladesh as the current Awami League government is in power since that time. If the sanction was from the time of its inception, then it could have been more authentic.
The US is the single largest export destination for Bangladesh with shipments amounting to nearly $7bn. The US is also one of the biggest development partners of Bangladesh and has trained its security officials and police on a number of occasions. According to the US State Department, Bangladesh is the largest recipient of US assistance in Asia after Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though many experts presumed that, the US sanctions show that the Biden administration had made a significant policy shift not only over Bangladesh, but in the US foreign policy in general, by placing electoral democracy and human rights at the heart of its foreign relations, few events might have influenced that shift for Bangladesh.
Along with the sanctions over RAB and its officials, America gave Bangladesh a short deadline to explain how it spent US military aid, totalling about $76 million since 2015. This revelation excavates the doubt that Washington is using the pretext of human rights abuses to push Bangladesh to become a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal anti-China military pact comprising of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
The world knows Washington’s sanctions strategies often carry hidden agendas. Applying the same tactic, Americans are giving Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina two messages: punish the named officers and join the Quad. Hasina’s failure to comply, especially with the second demand, is likely to subject Bangladesh to more sanctions. The US steps may embarrass Bangladesh on world stage but sanctions in general rarely achieve their stated goals.
RAB was formed to maintain law and order in Bangladesh and to suppress terrorism. At that time, the United States itself needed to suppress terrorism in the region. As a result, it was necessary to control terrorism in this area. In addition, the FBI trained a number of RAB officers. Their intelligence agencies have provided assistance in a number of RAB cases. They also gave modern weapons to RAB. After the formation of RAB, militant activities have been suppressed.
The allegation of extra-judicial killing against the RAB is not necessarily true in all cases. There are many such proved offenses and allegations against FBI, the elite force of the US. Between 2015 and 2018, U.S. police have killed 3,309 people. In 2019, U.S. police killed 1,099 people, 24% of whom were black. The United States has the fifth-highest number of police killings and the 30th-highest police killing rate per 10 million people globally.
After the US sanction, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) has written to the European Union (EU), asking it to impose sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion. Later European Union Ambassador to Bangladesh said it is not a matter confirmed by the European Union. Few human rights organizations are also urging for UN sanctions against RAB. But it might never happen as though USA or India may not remain on Bangladesh’s side on the matter, China and Russia, two other strong allies of Bangladesh, may remain on side.
It is true that, few RAB officials on different occasions were found guilty of different crimes. Several RAB officials were convicted for murder and illegal framing of drug abuse etc. They were served with punishment like death penalty, imprisonment and release from the force. Law enforcers in many countries are often linked with crimes and it is important that, they are identified and punished. Bangladesh has done a commendable job in that perspective.
Since its inception on March 26, 2004, the elite force has become a source of trust and reliance to the people of the country, and an entity feared by terrorists, drug traders and criminals. RAB officially started operating from April 14, 2004. Since then, it has led tireless campaigns against militancy and drugs. Bangladeshi people still trust RAB to the ultimate solution against the crimes in the country. According to RAB statistics, it arrested over 2,500 militants. Since 2004, it has arrested over 150,000 drug traders. After Prime Sheikh Hasina’s call for stern action against narcotics in 2018, it arrested nearly 55,000 drug traders through several operations.
Truly, if any crime is committed by RAB, then the criminals must be punished. But an institute like RAB must exist in Bangladesh to maintain law and order. Moreover, Bangladesh is a Muslim country and threats of terrorism and fundamentalism remains here. Additionally, due to the COVID-19 induced economic depression, such risks are at great heights. If terrorism or fundamentalism rises in Bangladesh, then it will impact the whole region and the results will not be positive for either India or USA or China or Russia. Keeping peace in Bangladesh is important for the region and RAB has a good role to play for this cause.
During the last decade, while Bangladesh experienced rapid development, the world has moved towards a bipolar leadership again. China is becoming a solid counterpart of the US and is getting the alliance of Russia in the process. The closest neighbor of Bangladesh, India remains on the side of the US while China has invested heavily in Bangladesh. The location of Bangladesh is very important strategically in the region. Hence, Bangladesh will have to experience the consequences of global politics. But it is unfortunate that, how the largest opposition of the country, BNP and its allies are trying to achieve political gain from this sanction. It truly depicts their anti-national mentality for personal gains.
To tackle the current situation, strong diplomatic effort is required. Bangladesh has not been very good at that till now as we could not find any diplomatic solution regarding the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees till now. While we become globally important, our diplomatic effort must reach excellence. Dull and passive diplomacy cannot protect our future anymore.
Bangladesh must act as a sovereign nation. We will take help from all our development partners especially to ensure human rights, democracy and rule of law, but we must not work under anyone’s compulsion. If we can grow independently, we will be able to work as a stabilizing point of this South Asian region and it will be beneficiary for Bangladesh and its development partners. Hopefully, we will not side with anyone or will go against anyone for the sake of our country’s progress.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visionary leadership has made us important to the global leaders and that will bring in pressures from different aspects. Hence, we hope our diplomatic efforts will make us overcome the current situation and the conspirators against our country will fail.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Chief Patron, Bangabandhu Shishu Kishore Mela