Dhaka, Bangladesh – Even though bilateral ties between the United States and Bangladesh are wide ranging and have historical roots, recent steps taken by President Joe Biden’s administration have raised concerns in the South Asian nation.
First, Bangladesh was not among the 111 countries invited to Biden’s high-profile virtual Summit for Democracy, held on December 9 and 10.
Then on Friday, 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.
The sanctions mean the RAB will neither be allowed to own properties in the US nor engage in any financial transaction with a US body or personnel. The sanctions also ban seven current and former top officials of the RAB, including Benazir Ahmed, the inspector general of Bangladesh Police, from entering the US.
Meanwhile, some local media reports said the US visa of former Bangladesh army chief General Aziz Ahmed was also revoked and he was declared “undesirable” to the US.
In February this year, an Al Jazeera investigation – All The Prime Minister’s Men – revealed how General Ahmed helped his brother Haris Ahmed to escape a prison sentence for a 1996 murder, amid other allegations of serious nepotism and malpractice against the army officer.
So far, Dhaka’s reaction to the US sanctions against the RAB has been visceral and sporadic, with Bangladesh’s foreign minister saying the US “possibly invited only weak democracies” to the summit and the home minister saying the sanctions against the paramilitary force was based on “exaggerated news stories”.
The foreign ministry, however, summoned Earl R Miller, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, on Saturday to express Dhaka’s disappointment over the sanctions on the RAB.
Human rights violations
The US is the single largest export destination for Bangladesh with shipments amounting to nearly $7bn, some 90 percent of which is ready-made garments (RMG). Bangladesh is home to one of the world’s most competitive RMG industries, pushing up the country’s annual growth rate by an average seven percent over the past two decades.
The US is also one of the biggest development partners of the South Asian nation, home to some 160 million people, 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.
Against this backdrop, experts say, the recent US steps appear to be a “warning” to Bangladesh over its continued slide in human rights and “bend towards authoritarianism” under the prime ministership of Sheikh Hasina.
Mubashar Hasan, adjunct research fellow at the University of Western Sydney, told Al Jazeera the US sanctions show that the Biden administration has 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.
“Perhaps Biden understood that if the idea of democracy lost its appeal abroad, it would be hard to distinguish the US or the West from authoritarian regimes,” Hasan said.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, while announcing the sanctions against the RAB, said: “We are determined to put human rights at the centre of our foreign policy, and we reaffirm this commitment by using appropriate tools and authorities to draw attention to and promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses, no matter where they occur.”
Bangladeshi human rights activist Nur Khan Liton told Al Jazeera that well-documented reports clearly imply that the RAB had been involved in human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
“We have long been asking the Bangladesh government to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the disappearances and crossfire, but the government doesn’t pay heed to our call,” he said.
“The US obviously observes the state of human rights and democracy in a country and they take decision basing on credible reports. So it’s no surprise that the RAB is slapped with such sanctions.”
In the last decade or so, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published four reports on the RAB, detailing its rights violations. In its 2011 report, titled Crossfire: Human Rights Abuses by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, HRW focused entirely on extrajudicial killings by the paramilitary force.
The HRW’s 2017 report on secret detentions and enforced disappearances, titled We Don’t Have Him, identified the RAB as being responsible for many of these incidents.
One of the sanctioned individuals, RAB deputy chief K M Azad, however, defended the force’s operations, saying it never violates human rights.
“If bringing down a criminal under the law is a violation of human rights, then we have no objection to violating this human rights in the interest of the country,” he said while talking to reporters after the US sanctions were announced last week.
In a written statement to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson of the US State Department said: “We highly value our partnership with the Government of Bangladesh and work closely on regional and global challenges. We have discussed with Bangladeshi leaders the importance of upholding human rights and the rule of law. We will continue to raise our concerns even as we cooperate on other bilateral issues.”
But some experts believe there are wider implications of the US moves against Bangladesh.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, said the sanctions suggest the Biden administration is “not willing to invest Dhaka with the strategic significance that many believe it deserves”.
“After all, the US doesn’t sanction leaders in countries with which it wants to work closely. The timing is certainly a bit surprising, given that only a few weeks ago a senior US State Department official was in Dhaka singing the praises of the relationship,” Kugelman told Al Jazeera.
He said Bangladesh might “appear to occupy a prominent position” in the geopolitics of South Asia as it sits astride the Indian Ocean, and is part of “a tug of war” for influence between regional rivals, India and China.
“A tug of war Dhaka incidentally wants no part of,” Kugelman said. “So one might expect the US to want to step up engagement but this move to sanction RAB suggests that may be the wrong read on Washington’s thinking on Bangladesh.”
He said the US may have made the move “not to distance itself from Dhaka, but to send a tough message that it wants to engage more” but only if Dhaka improves its rights record.
Ali Riaz, distinguished professor at Illinois State University, told Al Jazeera the recent US moves are not markers of a complete shift of US policy towards Bangladesh but an indication that the “patience of the United States is wearing thin”.
“For a long time, Washington used to view Bangladesh through the Indian prism, but this (sanction) indicates it is decoupling Bangladesh from its India policy,” he said.
“These steps are also consistent with the Biden administration’s focus on human rights. These steps will create some tensions between these two countries.”
Riaz said whether or not other countries such as the United Kingdom or Canada join the US in its move against Bangladesh will determine the effects of the sanctions.
“But the question is whether the US steps will be counterproductive, and whether it will push Bangladesh away from the United States, which will be detrimental to Bangladesh’s economic and security interests. There is a clear indication that China will take advantage of the situation and engage in increasing its influence,” he said.