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Bangladesh 'rights violations': US softens stance, fears increased clout of China, India

By Tilottama Rani Charulata* 

In December 2021, in addition to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the United States imposed sanctions on seven former and current officers of the force, alleging serious human rights violations. Benazir Ahmed and former RAB-7 commander Miftah Uddin Ahmed were banned from entering the US. RAB as an institution was also canceled the support it was getting from the US and its allies. At the same time, those under the ban have been notified of confiscation of assets held abroad.
The anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police, RAB is the elite force consisting of members of the Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, Bangladesh Civil Service and Bangladesh Ansar, and has been criticized by rights groups for its use of extrajudicial killings and is accused of forced disappearances.
The government of Bangladesh has been insisting about lifting the ban on RAB, but the US had till recently refused to respond. This despite the fact that the US had supported RAB's anti-terrorist activities after its inception in 2014. 
Yet it was banned, with analysts blaming it on intensive public relations by Bangladeshi communities living in the US lobbying with senators and congressmen and campaigns by various international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
And because of these activities, 10 US senators on October 27, 2020, in a letter written to then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin, requested the imposition of 'targetted sanctions' against RAB's senior commanders.
After the imposition of sanctions, Bangladesh protested as unreasonable sanctions of the US and said that they would stand by their position. However, there are signs that the US will soften its stance.
On January 15 in Dhaka, after discussions and bilateral meetings with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and State Minister Shahriar Alam, visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu praised the RAB's efforts to reduce extrajudicial killings after a year of sanctions over allegations of human rights abuses.
Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lu said that the Human Rights Watch report this week noted that the RAB had made outstanding progress. Mentioning this extraordinary work, he said that RAB will be able to fight terrorism and protect law and order by respecting human rights.
Analysts said, the US has softened its position on Bangladesh for its own interests. The reason they say is that the US has supported all activities of the RAB, which is under US sanctions, including training and various assistance. Yet, the fact is, Lu did not make any specific comment regarding the withdrawal of sanctions on RAB.
"We recognise this. This is amazing work. It shows that RAB is able to carry out its counterterrorism efforts and important functions while respecting human rights," Lu said during the press briefing. This has led to the expectation that the US sanctions on RAB will be lifted soon.
The fact is, during the formation of RAB, the involvement of the US and the United Kingdom was mentioned by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. AK Abdul Momen had said, "When the RAB was created, it was created with the advice of the US and the United Kingdom." Considering the situation of that time, those countries gave the concept of RAB. They gave equipment to the then government. RAB was initially launched because of them. Many people think that one of the objectives of Washington is to overcome the government of Bangladesh.
There have been parallels: Chile's Pinochet or Argentina's military dictator Jorge Vidal had to face trial for human rights violations. But it was the US that incited Pinochet and Vidal and trained their law enforcement forces. Not without reason, analysts call such behavior of the US a double standard.
The US sometimes identifies a country as a terrorist and human rights violator because of its own interests. Sometimes, for their own sake, they label someone as a scapegoat of humanity. Their behaviour is very old in the history of the world. However, the American leaders probably do not know what happens in the name of human rights in their own country. Who keeps count of how many robberies happen every day in just one New York City? How do they treat the black citizens of their country – who even raises the question?
Some people also see the geopolitical purpose of the US to soften the tone on the issue of human rights in Bangladesh. They say, depending on the geopolitics, the US adopts different foreign policy strategies in different countries of the world. Analysts believe that the US has adopted a strategy to restore democracy, protect human rights and improve the law-and-order situation in Bangladesh. And in this case, the main target of the US is China.
The Biden administration is eager to make Bangladesh sign the Aksa and GSOMIA agreements related to defense to prevent China. In the elections of 2008, 2014 and 2018, the opposition party claimed that the elections were not fair, but the US was very silent at that time. International analysts believe that the US is raising questions for its own interests, although it did not raise any questions about the law-and-order situation at that time.
They say that China's continued presence in Bangladesh in the name of development cooperation is making the US worry about its security and dominance in the Indian Ocean region. And so, to stop China, Washington is trying to subjugate Bangladesh by raising the smoke of human rights violations. However, in the end, as Bangladesh remained steadfast in its position, the US was forced to soften its tone.
Analysts say that in the reality of South Asia, as Bangladesh is geographically important, there has been a great improvement in the socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh in the last decade. Capacity has increased significantly. Bangladesh can now speak for itself in the eyes of superpowers. Besides, Bangladesh maintains very friendly diplomatic relations with India and China, two big neighbours of opposite religions.
The US is watching all this at a time when the world is no longer bound by a single power or a couple of big rings. The world is now a land of many powers. Even the old superpowers are now talking or being forced to talk about compromise.
*Independent researcher interested in the Bangladesh and Rohingya refugee affairs. She is currently living in Canada



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