Despite the assertions of the ruling Awami League leaders about their relationship with Washington, it’s evident that tensions are brewing between Bangladesh and the United States. The underlying cause of this discord stems from the United States’ dissatisfaction with the state of human rights and democracy in Bangladesh. This dissatisfaction led the US government to impose sanctions in December 2021 on seven high-ranking officials, both current and former, of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – an elite force of the Bangladesh Police responsible for combating terrorism, militancy and crimes.
Throughout 2022, Peter Haas, the American Ambassador to Bangladesh, met with families of individuals who were allegedly abducted, including the family of Sajedul Islam Sumon, a leader of the opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Haas expressed criticism about the human rights situation in Bangladesh, suggesting that under the cloud of political violence that envelops Dhaka, conducting “free and fair elections” is challenging. He emphasized the need to protect press freedom during elections. The Ambassador made it clear that the Biden administration prioritizes democracy and human rights in its foreign policy.
The imposition of US sanctions was a wake-up call for Bangladesh, as the US had traditionally been an ally. In response, Bangladesh aimed to reassure the US that its situation had been misinterpreted by certain groups. The country accepted the criticism as constructive feedback and undertook measures to address the concerns. Dhaka established a Human Rights Cell under the United Nations to monitor human rights issues, increased diplomatic communication and state-level visits, remained neutral in the Ukraine conflict, and complied with the US sanctions.
At the 2022 US-Bangladesh Security Dialogue, Dhaka elaborated on its stance regarding human rights and democracy. Despite these efforts, the US criticism persisted. Furthermore, in February 2023, the US State Department Counsellor, Derek Chollet, voiced worries about the declining state of democracy in Bangladesh, indicating that this decline would hamper cooperation with the US. The exclusion of Bangladesh from President Biden’s Democracy Summit for the second time, in December 2021 and February 2023, underscored these concerns.
As recently as March 21, 2023, just ahead of Bangladesh’s 46th Independence Day, President Biden’s letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina emphasized the importance of maintaining human rights and democracy in Bangladesh, particularly in the lead-up to the next election.
Despite Bangladesh’s conciliatory attempts, criticisms from the US continued to surface, resulting in fiery remarks from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She criticized the US’s handling of democracy and human rights within its own borders, highlighting issues such as school shootings and political unrest. Hasina accused the US of aiming for regime change in Bangladesh and suppressing democracy.
She stated, “In America, it is seen almost every day, people enter schools with weapons and shoot children and teachers, enter shopping malls and clubs and shoot there as well.” On democracy, she opined, “Even today I say that the country gives us the guise of democracy with its words. Starting from our opposition party, some people are dancing and cheering with their words”.
She accused the US of seeking a regime change in Bangladesh and said, “They are trying to eliminate democracy and introduce a government that will not have a democratic existence…. They can overthrow the government in any country, particularly Muslim countries. As long as they were controlling over Islamic countries, nothing happened”.
However, despite these tensions, Bangladesh’s economic and developmental aspirations are closely tied to the US. The US views Bangladesh as central to its Indo-Pacific Strategy due to its strategic location in the Bay of Bengal and its growing economic significance. Accordingly, the US seeks to sign two defense pacts with Bangladesh: The General Security of Military Information Agreement and the Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreement, to further strengthen security in the Indo-Pacific. In such a situation, the growing discord in Bangladesh-US relations will serve neither country; instead it will hinder mutual strategic and economic aspirations, and eventually bear consequences for both. But the ongoing discord could jeopardize both nations’ strategic and economic goals.
Meanwhile, on May 24, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken through a press release issued “Visa Policy” on Bangladesh, which is seen by analysts as a “blanket restrictions” or “blanker action”. Declaring the visa policy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “Today, I am announcing a new visa policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) (“3C”) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections. Under this policy, the United States will be able to restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. This includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services. The United States notified the Bangladeshi government of this decision on May 3, 2023.
“Actions that undermine the democratic election process include vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.
“The holding of free and fair elections is the responsibility of everyone—voters, political parties, the government, the security forces, civil society, and the media. I am announcing this policy to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh”.
Meanwhile, according to Blitz report, “the US Department of Treasury and the Department of Justice currently are eyeing on at least 11 individuals from Bangladesh who had laundered more than US$5 million each and have invested in numerous types of businesses, including real estate, gas stations, restaurants, and even casinos. Relevant federal agencies have been working for the last one year in gathering information and evidences on dozens of Bangladesh nationals, who already are red-flagged on allegations of corruption, money-laundering and other forms of financial crimes”.
The report further said, “although the first batch of sanctioned individuals would be just 11, this would ultimately grow further”.
It may be mentioned here that, the Global Magnitsky program and cooperation with like-minded international partners directly address the objectives outlined in the President’s 2021 Memorandum on Establishing the Fight Against Corruption as a Core National Security Interest. This memorandum states that corruption threatens US national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself. It directs US government action to strengthen efforts to hold accountable corrupt individuals and their facilitators, including by, where appropriate, identifying, freezing, and recovering stolen assets through sanctions or other authorities; bolster the capacity of domestic and international institutions and multilateral bodies focused on establishing global anti-corruption norms; and work with international partners to counteract strategic corruption by foreign leaders, foreign state-owned or affiliated enterprises, and other foreign actors and their domestic collaborators.
Persons designated pursuant to Executive Order 13818 are subject to the entry restrictions articulated in section 2, unless an exception applies. Section 2 provides that the entry of persons designated under section 1 of the order is suspended pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 8693.
In another report Blitz said, following imposition of sanctions on Lebanon’s former central bank governor Riad Salame on August 10, 2023, the US, UK and Canada are considering similar sanction targeting several individuals from Bangladesh who had laundered millions of dollars and invested in real estate and business establishments in those countries.
According to the report, Canadian authorities have already identified over 200 Bangladesh nationals who had laundered huge amount of money and mostly invested in real estate. Similarly, authorities in the United Kingdom has also been investigating allegations against dozens of Bangladesh individuals who have laundered significant amount of money into the country through illegal hawala channels while major segment of this dirty cash had entered the United Kingdom via Dubai and offshore accounts in Bahamas and British Virgin Islands.
What is next?
As Bangladesh is heading towards holding 12th general election by January 9, 2024, United States and the Western nations have been repeatedly emphasizing on ensuring a free, fair and credible election, as the past 2018 general election was marred with tremendous controversies, for ruling Awami League, there is possible no scope of once again holding a controversial election this time.
At the same time, it will be important that Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – the largest opposition in Bangladesh participates in the upcoming election. Once BNP joins the election, international observers from the US, UK and EU shall definitely make their presence to monitor the entire electoral process. In that case, it will be almost impossible for the Election Commission or the civil-military administration and the law enforcement agencies in playing a partisan role as such deeds will simply result in visa restrictions followed by sanctions. Leaders of the ruling Awami League definitely are aware of this fact.
Now it is important to watch, how BNP plays the card. If they decide to boycott the upcoming election similarly as 2014, they will actually give a free pass to Awami League. Because, BNP’s boycott of election will relieve Awami League from any actions from the United States and other western countries. Rather it will put BNP into risk, as any attempt of sabotaging the election shall be deemed as offense under the US State Department’s visa policy.
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