This year, 2022, Bangladesh and the United States are celebrating the 50th anniversary of friendship -Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken kicked off a busy program of engagements for the year ahead by marking the milestone during their meeting on April 4 in Washington, DC.
Peter D. Haas has been here in Bangladesh as US ambassador for about three months. He plans to meet with a number of US government officials, congressional staffers, NGOs, and businesspeople in Washington soon to discuss his experiences and observations in this country so far.
"I believe that in the last 50 years, Bangladesh has had no better friend than the United States. And that it will have no better friend over the next 50 years," Ambassador Haas told diplomatic correspondents at "DCAB Talk" held in Jatiya Press Club on May 31. What is he going to tell them?
Ambassador Haas says he plans to report three things when he gets to Washington. First, the successes of Bangladesh are real. Second, the challenges Bangladesh faces are also real. And third, the United States should remain the same steadfast partner to Bangladesh for the next fifty years as it has been over the past fifty years.
The US envoy noted Bangladesh will soon graduate from Least Developed Country status, and it is steadily progressing towards becoming a middle-income country. "These accomplishments are real, tangible, and truly extraordinary."
He said Bangladesh's geography on a low-lying river delta, with a long coastline and large floodplains, makes it extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Increasing temperatures raise the threat of cyclones, floods, crop destruction, food shortages, respiratory diseases, and mosquito-borne diseases.
He said when it comes to democracy and human rights, the United States would raise their concerns publicly and privately. Haas reiterated that they are concerned about press freedom, especially the Digital Security Act, and several draft laws and regulations that could inhibit press freedom in his host country.
"We are concerned about human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances," he said.
On December 10, 2021, Human Rights Day, the United States imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and some of its serving as well as former officials, based on what Ambassador Haas called "credible evidence" of serious human rights abuses.
Responding to a question, the US envoy said his country "makes no excuses" when it comes to the matter of human rights and freedom of the press. "I will go back to a comment that I made earlier -that the United States has decided to put human rights, the issues of freedom of the press at the centre of our foreign policy and that we make no excuses about that."
He said they are also concerned about insufficient labour rights and poor working conditions in Bangladesh.
These concerns, unfortunately, cost Bangladesh access to the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences trade benefit, or GSP, in 2013, he mentioned, adding that they are also causing Bangladesh to miss out on the US Development Finance Corporation, a massive source of investment capital from the United States.
He said they are ready to continue to work with Bangladesh and build on the progress they have made together in food security, health, and reducing poverty - while identifying new and innovative approaches to address issues like climate change, promoting democratic principles, and sustaining Bangladesh's impressive economic growth.
"Just think for a moment about how far Bangladesh has come since its war for independence--from a newborn country devastated by conflict to a thriving country with one of the world's fastest growing economies," Haas said.
Bangladesh is not Sri Lanka
The United States does not see any Sri Lanka-like situation in Bangladesh, noting that Bangladesh is a country which has done "extremely well" in terms of macroeconomic and debt management with careful borrowing and strong foreign currency reserves.
"Basically Bangladesh is not Sri Lanka," said the US ambassador, mentioning fundamentally there are different sets of challenges.
He also mentioned that Bangladesh has taken a small amount of loan from China, adding that the situation in Bangladesh will not be like that of Sri Lanka.
The ambassador, however, said it does not mean that Bangladesh economy does not face challenges - with high inflation amid supply chain disruptions stemming from the situation in Ukraine.
The envoy said he has been speaking about the importance of having free, fair and transparent elections here in Bangladesh where the people will have the right and the ability to freely elect their leaders.
He said it is up to Bangladesh to decide how they will be working to create those conditions and mentioned that they have been looking at some of the international election standards to understand better what they are and looking at the Carter Centre, in particular. "They have a very comprehensive list of what those standards are."
Haas said freedom of press, no violence and the role of Election Commission are some of the important factors to ensure a fair election.
"This is a job of the Bangladesh government, people, media and the civil society to create conditions for a free and fair election," he said, adding it is important to remain vigilant as people are already talking about elections.
IPEF and Bangladesh
Responding to a question, Haas said there will be opportunities for other countries to join in the recently launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
There have been consultations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in March regarding the IPEF and the ambassador hoped that Bangladesh will follow it closely.
President Biden launched the IPEF with a dozen initial partners: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Together, they represent 40% of world GDP.
Regarding sanctions imposed on the elite force Rab, the US envoy said President Biden has made it clear that human rights and protection of human rights are central to US foreign policy.
And the sanctions imposed against the Rab and some of the officials were a result of that, he said.
Haas said the US wants accountability for the Rab so that it avoids potential human rights abuses, and efforts to make sure that those abuses do not happen again in the future.
"So, it's not really a question of providing a list of things that must be accomplished. It's not about specifics but the underlying principles: commitment to human rights and commitment to accountability in the cases of human rights violations," he said.
Pak Atrocities in 1971
The United States has said there was no doubt that there had been "terrible atrocities" and killings in 1971 but the question of determining genocide under the US law is a very difficult legal question.
"Undoubtedly what happened in 1971 was horrible. There were terrible atrocities. There were considerable amounts of deaths. The question of determining genocide under the US law is a very difficult legal question," said the US ambassador when asked whether the US is in a position to recognize the genocide in Bangladesh in 1971.
The US government recently determined that the Myanmar military committed the crimes against humanity and genocide against humanity against ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
Late Edward M. Kennedy in his speech delivered on his first visit to independent Bangladesh in February 1972 said, "You know while some governments do not yet recognise you, the people of the world do recognise you and they recognise all you have accomplished here in the name of freedom from tyranny and oppression....."
Delivering an update on Bangladesh's request for the deportation of Rashed Chowdhury, the self-confessed as well as convicted killer of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Haas tried to explain how it is a very complicated legal proceeding in the US to overturn someone's asylum, that too with a view to deport/extradite them.
He said they are very much aware of Bangladesh's interest to see a decision made but it currently remains under review.
Bangladesh is hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas who fled a brutal genocide in Myanmar. Their continued presence poses huge challenges.
"It is incumbent upon all of us to push Burma to create the conditions to allow a safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Rohingya," said Haas.
In the meantime, he said, they must all work together to ensure that the Rohingya refugees do not become a lost generation.
In addition to basic food and shelter, they need education, livelihoods, good health care, and security to prepare them for when they return to Myanmar, he added.
Diplomatic Correspondents Association, Bangladesh (DCAB) hosted the "DCAB Talk" at Jatiya Press Club. DCAB President Rezaul Karim Lotus moderated the event while its General Secretary AKM Moinuddin delivered the welcome remarks.
Foreign Minister's intervention
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has advised the journalists to ask the US diplomats about their issues, not about Bangladesh.
"Ask [the] USA about their issues and not about Bangladesh. [The] USA is not obligated to govern and help improve this country of ours," he said in a message shared with the local journalists on Wednesday.
The foreign minister, now on an official visit abroad, apparently expressed displeasure over the tendency of journalists in asking questions to foreign diplomats on Bangladesh's internal affairs.
His retort came a day after US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas talked about a number of issues on Bangladesh's next national elections, freedom of press and human rights issues in an open discussion on Tuesday organised by the Diplomatic Correspondents Association, Bangladesh (DCAB), reports UNB.
"If they want freedom of the press, why have they blocked RT TV from airing? If they want accountability, why has there not been any punishment or accountability of the US security forces/police that have killed over a thousand citizens, mostly Black and Hispanic each year?" the message read.
Pointing to the media, Momen said, "Why don't you ask those questions to the US ambassador? If their election process is fair, then why young Americans don't have faith in their election process and hardly vote? Hardly any young Americans vote. Why is the turnout stuck around 25 percent in each election? Does it represent a participatory election process?"
The foreign minister said local media should rather ask questions to the US ambassador about why they cannot stop such extrajudicial killings in their own country.
Secondly, he said, each year nearly 100,000 Americans are reported missing in the USA and even children are deprived of their reunion with their Hispanic parents - the foreign minister wants Bangladeshi journalists to raise these with the US.
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