Four weeks on from the Biden administration announcing sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion of Bangladesh and seven current and former officers, including serving Inspector General of Police Benazir Ahmed, it is fair to say the overall reaction from Bangladesh has been all over the place. This is somewhat understandable - this is the first time any entity from Bangladesh has been subjected to US sanctions, a non-violent yet coercive tool of foreign policy that Washington uses more than any other state in the world, because they are able to do so most effectively.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of the Treasury administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals. They can target countries, specific industries, organisations or individuals. The targeting of individuals is in fact fairly new, following the adoption of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act by Congress in 2016, that authorised targeted sanctions on individuals involved in human rights abuses worldwide.
Ever since they learned about it, Bangladesh society has been fairly divided, between those who have criticised Washington for what they variously described as its overbearing attitude, its failure to introspect, and its hypocrisy, and those who believe the law enforcement agencies have only themselves to blame against the background of a poor human rights record, particularly in relation to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Yet others felt the need to acknowledge RAB's poor record in this regard, but felt there was no need for the US to intervene in a way that brings disrepute on the state - Bangladeshis themselves are well aware of these shortcomings, and are doing what they can to make the paramilitary force change tack.
The government was defensive to start with, bullishly pointing to shortcomings and problems within U.S. policing itself, but has gradually adopted a more pliant tone - culminating in a letter from Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen to his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that contained a plea to reconsider.
As for those targeted specifically, in an interview with the private television channel Ekattur TV shortly after the sanctions were announced on December 10, Benazir Ahmed expressed shock at the decision. He believes the sanctions against himself and RAB, which he headed for five years until April 2020, were based on "distorted information" and on propaganda involving "lies, falsehood and deceit."
"I would say it was shocking, not surprising. We are shocked. People of this country are shocked," Ahmed said in the interview, his first following the sanctions announcement. "In the context of the US-Bangladesh relationship [...] such a decision cannot be made. They jumped into this decision based on distorted information, they could have talked with our government before jumping to conclusions."
The IGP also disputed the view that RAB, to which officers are periodically deputed from other security agencies of the state, enjoys license to act with impunity, "We have to fulfill our responsibilities. Our country will be governed according to its laws, rules, policies and the judiciary system. Our country will run according to its legal mandate. However if there is a violation, if someone violates the legal provisions, there are arrangements for that as well. Now you have to see if any legal provisions were violated in the allegations that have been made. There is something to look into if there are anomalies there. We do not look into the allegations of anomalies - the magisterial authority looks after them, especially if it is an issue of somebody dying in an operation."
Ahmed also questioned how Bangladesh's war on drugs could impact US interests, as was claimed in the sanctions announcement by the country's Treasury Department.
"I do not understand how conducting an anti-narcotics campaign in Bangladesh is a threat to US national security. We are not living on the same continent, we do not have common borders. Those who are involved with drug smuggling in the United States are not the same people who smuggle and peddle drugs in Bangladesh. I think this term was used just for the sake of it, to add more weight to the allegation."
Meanwhile, a RAB spokesperson completely dismissed the allegations that drew the sanctions, and rather painted the force as a champion of human rights.
"Very few forces in the world show humanity like RAB," claimed RAB legal and media wing director Khandaker Al Moin while addressing a press conference at its media centre in Karwan Bazar in the city on December 11. He also said RAB does not snatch human rights, rather it protects them.
It was eventually learned that three ministries within the government - foreign affairs, law and home - have been specifically tasked with dealing with the issue, with the ultimate aim of having the sanctions lifted. Yet it may not yield much result for some time yet. US sanctions usually last a very long time once they are imposed - you're certainly not looking at months, or even just a few years.
The US works through institutional processes that take time to reach a decision, and once it is reached, they are highly unlikely to go back on it soon. As an example, just look at the suspension of the GSP facility for Bangladesh in 2013, under the Obama administration. Bangladesh started the process of lobbying to have it reinstated almost immediately, but to this day, despite all these efforts and even some improvements in terms of labour rights, including a new labour law, there has been no shift in Washington's position. As such, we may expect the sanctions also to follow a similar path.
Why sanctions, why now?
In order to understand why the Biden administration took this step, we can look at the views of Michael Kugelman, one of America's leading contemporary scholars on South Asia, who writes Foreign Policy magazine's South Asia brief, a weekly newsletter. He himself expressed a degree of puzzlement over the sanctions, in a note specifically addressing the sanctions, that was included in the newsletter dated December 16, Kugelman wrote:
"Sanctioning the RAB makes sense from a human rights perspective: The force has carried out more than 1,200 extrajudicial killings and 170 enforced disappearances in the past two decades, according to Bangladeshi rights group Odhikar. It makes less sense from a geopolitical perspective. The United States has emphasised partnership with Bangladesh, suggesting a willingness to overlook its human rights record. A 2019 U.S. State Department document identified areas of potential cooperation with Dhaka-from counterterrorism to trade.
"In February, US officials met in Washington with Bangladesh's army chief, then embroiled in a corruption scandal. At the time, a US Army spokesperson said the two armies "share a close partnership." And just last month, senior State Department official Kelly Keiderling visited Dhaka and spoke of a desire to expand the relationship. The sanctions came just a few weeks later.
"So what gives? One possibility is the Biden administration has decided to make Bangladesh a prominent target of its democracy promotion campaign. (This would explain Washington's decision not to invite Dhaka to last week's democracy summit.) But this would fly in the face of Keiderling's recent comments, suggesting the United States sees Bangladesh as lacking sufficient strategic value to warrant a close partnership.
"US sanctions could also be a shot across the bow to warn Bangladesh about the risks of its growing relationship with China. But that is also unlikely given that sanctioning Dhaka could drive it closer to Beijing. Bangladesh currently seeks to balance its relations with China, the United States, and India. But it may be more receptive to Beijing's overtures if Washington continues to take aim at its human rights record.
"The more likely explanation is the United States simply sought to push Bangladesh on its human rights record, not give up on the relationship. As one former Dhaka-based U.S. diplomat put it, "sanctioning RAB may well have just been a low hanging fruit given long standing concerns about its actions." On Wednesday (Dec. 15), a State Department spokesperson insisted the United States still seeks cooperation, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with his Bangladeshi counterpart, A.K. Abdul Momen.
"But the damage is done. For Bangladesh, sanctioning the RAB amounts to an attack on an institution that has carried out successful counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations. In an ideal world, Dhaka would eliminate the RAB's culture of impunity-resulting in the removal of sanctions and a boost for US-Bangladeshi relations. But in reality, an increasingly undemocratic Dhaka is unlikely to rein the force in."
According to Kugelman's analysis, there is a lack of clarity on what exactly compelled the U.S. to go for sanctions at this juncture. This is probably due to his tendency to underestimate the geopolitical stakes at play here. South Asia is an absolute hotspot in the the US rivalry with China for global pre-eminence, and there can be no scope for denying that Dhaka and Beijing have grown increasingly close in recent years.
It was notable that on the very day the US sanctions were announced, which coincided with International Human Rights Day as well as the close of a two-day Democracy Summit at the White House (held virtually, due to Covid) to which Bangladesh was pointedly not invited, the Chinese ambassador in Dhaka released a video expressing solidarity with the government, and dismissing the Democracy Summit as mere pomp and pageantry.
Seen from this angle, the sanctions were meant to be a reminder to Dhaka to not get too close to Beijing. Initially, when the government appeared bullish, it was thought that they may end up having the opposite effect. But gradually, we have seen Dhaka come away from that. Simply put, the people-to-people ties between the United States and Bangladesh are too deep, for any government to simply ignore the relationship. When something acts to hamper ties in any way, Dhaka cannot afford to take it lightly. And that is why we have seen the government adopt a more and more receptive stance around the turn of the year.
Open to suggestions
It all started with the revelation that the government was investigating some 76 unresolved cases pending with the United Nations Human Rights Council's Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID).
"We are looking at every single case. Now it was not only the foreign ministry but also the law ministry also looking at those 76 cases. We will come up with the facts," Law Minister Anisul Haque told an introductory press meet hosted by the Overseas Correspondents Association of Bangladesh at the National Press Club on December 30.
In the working group's report released on December 6, it was stated that "allegations of enforced disappearances, notably those carried out by members of the RAB, should be promptly investigated and those responsible prosecuted."
The WGEID actually refers to 86 such unresolved cases, out of nearly 600 people who have disappeared since 2009 - a statistic mentioned in the US sanctions announcement, that probably led the government to make the connection that it was one of the reports Washington relied on for making its decision.
"The majority were either released or eventually formally produced in court as arrests, but dozens were found dead. The sources refer to 86 documented cases in which the victims' fate and whereabouts remain unknown," the WGEID report stated.
At the press meet, the law minister also took pains to explain the government's initiatives aimed at improving the criminal justice delivery system by building infrastructure, introducing electronic judicial processes and even repealing some laws.
This week, the foreign minister briefed the media on a letter he wrote to Antony Blinken, requesting to reconsider the sanctions. Dr Momen said that in the letter, he wrote 1,000 people are killed by police in the USA every year.
"You term those 'killed in the line of duty'. When it happens in our country, local newspapers refer to those as 'extrajudicial killings'. Both are extra-judicial killings... because you (USA) also don't follow legal procedure. People are killed by law enforcers both here and there. Police kill 1,000 people in your country every year... And you're saying that 400 people were killed in 10 years here (Bangladesh). This is funny... This is what we wrote in the letter," Momen said.
Momen told Blinken that Bangladesh is committed to democracy and human rights.
"We had written the letter following my telephone conversation with Blinken on December 15, 2021. Then of course there were Christmas holidays. I told them (Bangladesh embassy in Washington) to hand over the letter in person so they take the issue seriously," Momen said to journalists following a programme in Sylhet.
A foreign ministry official said the letter was sent to the Bangladesh embassy on December 31 and the embassy is scheduled to hand it over to Blinken's office. Momen, in the letter, said the US and Bangladesh have 50 years of strong relations.
"We have various dialogues with the US. So, the sanction was unexpected. I said Rab is a very credible organisation. They fight drug trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism -- issues that are also of US concerns," he said. He acknowledged there is a scope for discussion on the allegations based on which the sanctions were imposed.
During the conversation between Momen and Blinken on December 15, Blinken had said the Biden administration's mandates are democracy and human rights. To that, Momen responded by saying:
"We said Bangladesh was born out of a demand for democracy. Democracy is not new in Bangladesh... In your country you say it is a good election when voter turnout is 26 percent. In our country, 70 and 80 percent turnout is normal. We said, we make no compromise on human rights. When RAB did anything illegal, they were punished."
Speaking to journalists in his office the next day, the foreign minister even said the government will try to address any weaknesses, as they awaited a response from the US on the call to withdraw the sanctions.
"We will try to rectify it, we are quite open to it," Momen said.
But any response from the US is unlikely to contain the magic formula to have the sanctions lifted anytime soon. That is simply not how the sanctions regime works.
Time to play it cool?
Professor Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, recognises the futility of expecting any immediate results. He has said that for the moment, instead of "spending energy focusing on the US imposed sanctions, engaging in a verbal fight, and doubling down on the claim that all is well," Bangladesh should rather review the role of RAB (apart from the overall human rights situation in the country), and do so in earnest.
In a similar vein, Professor Shahab Enam Khan, chair of the International Relations Department at Jahangirnagar University, asserts that letters and diplomacy alone won't be enough to have the sanctions lifted.
"Our policymakers must devise a comprehensive strategy and move forward with that. We have some weaknesses, those must be addressed. Above all we must keep engaging with the US through dialogue at all levels. Not just through diplomatic channels - this dialogue will need to be initiated and maintained through other channels as well, including civil society," he said.
From where we stand today, patience would be a virtue.
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