With some nimble diplomacy, US and Bangladesh seek to move beyond sanctions irritant

In the last two years, both countries have had 18 bilateral visits; Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations, including the latest visit of Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu.

Doreen Chowdhury Jan 22, 2023
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Donald Lu, the United States assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs (left), speaks with Bangladesh Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen at a meeting in Dhaka (Photo courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

On December 10, 2021, the United States announced sanctions against Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on charges of human rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US against the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. 

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established a Human Rights Cell in the foreign ministry.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations. In the last two years, both countries have had 18 bilateral visits; Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations, including the latest visit of Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu.

Both countries also held the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March-April 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their relationship. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen also met his US counterpart Antony Blinken in April 2022 in Washington DC.

Improved human rights record

While many rogue states such as North Korea react to  US sanctions by projecting hard power and test-launching missiles, Bangladesh took the diplomatic route to resolve the issue. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanctions. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland when she came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. There have been no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. 

Apart from that, the human rights situation also improved in Bangladesh as the government gave it attention in order to project a better image to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu, who visited Bangladesh January 14-15, also acknowledged the fall in extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh and said there was "tremendous progress" after the US sanctions.

Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal  told the media that the US delegation was satisfied with RAB’s current activities. He further said in a newspaper interview that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

RAB can support US security interests

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a "drop in abuse" in Bangladesh (Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of international sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding human rights deserve praise.

An elite force with a relatively 'clean record' and its efforts at curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy can be a useful ally in supporting US national security interests in this region. 

Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the sanctions are the only "strain" in this bilateral relationship. In light of recent positive developments, both countries are likely to move beyond this irritant in the near future.

(The author is a doctoral researcher at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. Views are personal. She can be contacted at doreen.chy1992@gmail.com)

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