The relation between Bangladesh and the United States has transformed over the years. The once donor vs recipient relationship has now turned into one of partnership. In South Asia Bangladesh is regarded as an important ally of the US with wide ranging cooperation on regional and global security, counter terrorism and climate change. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of readymade garments (nearly $6 billion in 2020) to the US. With about $1 billion investment mainly in power and energy sectors the US stands only behind the UK in foreign investment in Bangladesh. Their cooperation in the services sector is healthy too.
In short, the bilateral relations have come a long way leaving behind the bitter memories of 1971 when Bengalis failed to get the then US administration (Nixon-Kissinger era) by their side in the war to liberate their land from the occupation of Pakistani forces. During that War of Liberation Bengalis had painfully witnessed Washington and Beijing to extend political, diplomatic and to some extent military support to Pakistan. The US 7th fleet was on way to the Bay of Bengal in a bid to boost the sagging morale of Pakistani troops on the eve of Bangladesh's decisive victory in the war on Dec. 16 half a century ago. With a steady annual growth of its economy by over 6 per cent for several years and the recent UN confirmation of its graduation to a developing nation (effective from 2026) Bangladesh has reasons to be upbeat on the golden jubilee of its independence.
In the midst of its preparation for the celebrations came the bolt from the blue: the US administration announced (on Dec. 10) imposition of human rights violation-related sanctions against the country's elite crime-fighting force Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) and its seven former and current commanders, notably among them the incumbent police boss Benazir Ahmed.
The punitive measure was announced by the Department of the Treasury under the Global Magnitsky sanctions programme in connection with serious rights abuse.
"Today, on International Human Rights Day, the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is designating 15 individuals and 10 entities for their connection to human rights abuse and repression in several countries around the globe, pursuant to multiple sanctions authorities," said a Treasury release.
Rab is designated pursuant to EO 13818 for being a foreign entity that is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse, it said on its website.
"NGOs have alleged that Rab and other Bangladeshi law enforcement are responsible for more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, and torture. Some reports suggest these incidents target opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists."
Widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse in Bangladesh by Rab -- as part of the Bangladesh government's war on drugs -- threaten US national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh, it added.
The Magnitsky Act that has been used in sanctioning Rab and the officials has its own history too. Passed as a bipartisan bill by the US Congress and signed into a law by President Barack Obama it was meant to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while imprisoned in Moscow in 2009. Extended in 2016 the law applies globally and authorizes the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets and ban them from entering the country.
In the past the U.S. has sanctioned officials and entities of the countries which remain outside its strategic national interests. It does not behave the same way when the offenders are its strategic allies or partners. Washington hardly hesitates to go after countries like Russia, China, Myanmar and Venezuela, but spares Saudi Arabia and Israel, also known for human rights abuse. This contradiction in Washington's policy has prompted criticism from around the world, even within the United States, where black people are subjected to human rights violations too. Some call the U.S. policy as hypocrisy.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government said it felt hurt by the sanctions imposed on the top security agency officials. That the move came on a joyous occasion makes the move more painful. American Ambassador in Dhaka Earl Miller was immediately summoned to the foreign office where Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen expressed Dhaka's surprise and dissatisfaction over the sanctions. It has been profoundly unfair to Bangladesh, Miller was told. On the political level Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader denounced the move as "politically motivated." However, Dhaka seems to have toned down its initial high-pitched reaction within days. It became evident when Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said on Tuesday that Bangladesh government will try to reach the prudent officials in the U.S. to tell them how unjust and one-sided the decision has been in the context of growing Dhaka-Washington relations. The foreign minister is right in taking the approach of talking out the differences before they develop into real disputes. Dhaka's efforts should now be directed to convince the Biden administration to withdraw the sanctions the soonest. At the same time Bangladesh government has a task on hand: make serious probe into the allegations of rights abuses raised by the global (and local too) human rights watchdogs to find out where it went wrong and how.
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