S Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya has urged the political parties in Bangladesh to reject violence and support a genuinely peaceful democratic process that allows the people of Bangladesh to choose their own leaders.

"Well, I think one message I would underscore is urging all parties to reject violence, and to support a genuinely inclusive, peaceful, free and fair democratic process. Let's let the people of Bangladesh decide," she told UNB in an exclusive interview before wrapping up her two and half days visit to Bangladesh.

Zeya made it clear that the United States' objective is to support elections in Bangladesh that are "free, fair and peaceful."

On the other hand, she said, the question of potentially a caretaker government, or a boycott, these are "internal matters" for the people of Bangladesh. "We don't see a role for the United States. And I just want to underscore the final point that we do not take sides between political parties."

During her meetings in Dhaka, Under Secretary Zeya emphasized the importance of working together to achieve Bangladesh's goal of free and fair elections; the crucial role of civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, and labor activists; accountability for human rights abuses; and the need to continue support for Rohingya refugees.

Asked about her visit to India before coming to Bangladesh, she said her visit to India was part of regular consultations with Indian government counterparts and also in her dual head role as Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues.

"So on this point, I would say, reflecting from this week of meetings, I see convergence between our three governments in terms of benefits for a more free and open Indo Pacific that is more resilient, connected, secure and prosperous," she said.

Lifting Sanctions

With respect to the sanctions that were imposed on the Rapid Action Battalion in December 2021, she said this was a decision and the result of "careful research and consideration" of information.

"And, in fact, since those sanctions were imposed, we have seen a constructive development in terms of a documented reduction in reported extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances," Zeya said.

But on the question of lifting the sanctions, she underscored that they would need to see accountability for past and current abuses, and meaningful reform of the institution of RAB.

"These are considerations to take in mind with respect to a potential lifting of sanctions," said the US senior diplomat.

She said they also work to shine a light on human rights, shortcomings and abuses so that they can correct and hold to account those who are violating the rights of others.

Zeya left Dhaka early Friday with renewed sense of determination on potential to deepen the partnership, and a real appreciation of Bangladesh's immense potential and their role as Americans to help this country progress and thrive.

"Our partnership is broad. It is impactful. The United States is seeking to build a closer partnership with Bangladesh on democracy and human rights as well," she said.

Regarding visa restrictions policy, she said it was put forward absolutely in a spirit to support the prime minister's stated commitment to free and fair and peaceful elections. "And that's something that I heard very affirmatively in the discussions we had."

Responding to a question on sending election observers, Zeya said they are examining this.

In fact it did come up in the discussions, she said, adding that they are aware of the government's openness to welcoming election observers.

"So this is something that we're assessing and we'll be in discussion with the government. It's something also that the United States does all over the world," said the US under secretary.

Indo-Pacific Strategy

The United States is interested in really seeking to advance an Indo Pacific that is open and free, and more connected, more resilient, more prosperous, and more secure, said the US diplomat.

She did discuss ways with Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen that they could further translate what they see as a shared vision for the Indo Pacific into concrete cooperation.

"And this cooperation is already occurring. One of the important areas is in combating transnational crime, and specifically trafficking in persons," Zeya said, adding that they are very committed to partnering with Bangladesh to end trafficking in persons.

Under Secretary Zeya also announced a $1 million grant from the State Department to the Freedom Fund and its partners.

"So this is just one example I think of many others in which we can work together to build a more free and open Indo Pacific in concrete ways. So there is a huge potential room for collaboration in the coming days. I absolutely believe so," she said.

This programme will provide reintegration services to more than 500 children who have been exploited by human traffickers.

The United States is dedicated to partnering with the government and civil society to address the scourge of human trafficking.

"Bangladesh is a vital partner in our goal to ensure a more free and open Indo-Pacific. Our partnership is anchored by shared democratic principles and respect for human rights," Zeya stated.

Asked about any plan or proposal from the US related to St Martin's Island, the US senior diplomat said, "Let me be very clear on this. There is absolutely no plan on this. The United States respects Bangladesh's sovereignty and there have not been any discussions about a potential lease of St. Martin's Island."

Perception on Pressure

Asked about the perception that the US is escalating pressure on Bangladesh, Zeya said, "I think I would correct your perception a bit respectfully. This visit is about the importance of Bangladesh as a partner to the United States. Our desire is the US government to deepen that partnership, but also our view that this partnership is anchored in shared democratic principles and human rights."

Highlighting the longevity and breadth of Bangladesh-US partnership, she said many people may not be aware that Bangladesh is the leading development partner for the United States, in all of Asia.

Since Bangladesh's independence, the US has put forward more than $8 billion in assistance in sectors like health, agriculture and humanitarian assistance and Bangladesh was the leading recipient of US provided COVID vaccines.

Zeya said they had a very "productive and engaging" series of meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ministers of law, home and the foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen.

Rohingya Repatriation

On her "very moving" full day visit to Cox's Bazar, she said they toured extensively the camps and had the opportunity to consult with senior Bangladeshi officials, vital UN human and humanitarian partners, as well as speak to the camp residents themselves and hear about their experiences and, and what we collectively can do to support them and the communities that host them.

"Repatriation was one of the topics we discussed at length, with those many individuals supporting the population at Cox's Bazar, as well as in all of our meetings," said the US senior diplomat.

She conveyed the United States' deep gratitude for the remarkable generosity that the government of Bangladesh and the people of Bangladesh have shown to this very vulnerable population.

The US supports the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar but only under conditions that are conducive to "safe, dignified and sustainable voluntary" returns.

"Now, unfortunately, these conditions do not currently exist in Burma. So we are continuing to consult with like minded partners, including the government of Bangladesh," Zeya said.

The US is also urging all concerned to organize any efforts in coordination and partnership with the UNHCR consistent with long established standards regarding repatriation of refugees.

"On this point, I want to make clear that I was very heartened to hear a direct affirmation from the Government of Bangladesh and my meetings on their commitment against any forced involuntary returns," Zeya said.

Responding to a question on Burma Act, she said, "I see it as an additional tool of accountability that gives this president the ability to impose sanctions on entities that are undermining democratic processes, and human rights."

Zeya added, "We see these accountability tools as valuable elements of our efforts to frankly augment pressure on the regime in Burma to restore the country's democratic path."

Zeya and a delegation of senior U.S. government officials from the Department of State, including Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asia Donald Lu, traveled to Dhaka and Cox's Bazar July 11-14 to meet with senior government officials, civil society members, Rohingya refugees, and representatives from humanitarian organizations.

While in Bangladesh, Zeya had warm and productive meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Law Minister Anisul Huq, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, and other senior officials from the government of Bangladesh.

She also met with labor activists, civil society leaders, and human rights defenders.

Zeya announced more than $74 million in additional U.S. humanitarian assistance to support Myanmar and Bangladesh response efforts, including nearly $61 million to support Rohingya internally displaced in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and their host communities.

This brings total assistance to more than $2.1 billion since 2017 to help Rohingya and host communities.

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