The US on December 10 imposed sanctions on Rab and its seven current and former top officials on human rights grounds.
The move came just days after the superpower dropped Bangladesh from the list of invitees to the Democracy Summit on December 9-10.
The two events have triggered concerns within the government, with officials remaining in a mode of denial.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said the following day that the government has no information corroborating the US statement that Rab and other law enforcement agencies are responsible for 600 disappearances since 2009 and nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, as well as torture.
The Treasury Department says some reports suggest these incidents target opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists.
Law Minister Anisul Haque described the allegations as “fictitious”.
Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen summoned the US Ambassador Earl R Miller and said the sanction appeared to be based more on “unverified or unsubstantiated” allegations than on facts in connection with specific incidents.
Now, the question is what, if any, other factors lie behind the US sanctions and the wider implications for Bangladesh.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based global think tank, said the US move suggests the Biden administration has concluded there are limits to US-Bangladesh cooperation and Bangladesh’s strategic value.
“One can’t reasonably expect there to be strong levels of engagement when the US sanctions some of Bangladesh’s top security officials,” he said in an email interview Monday.
“When you use Human Rights Day to release a statement announcing you’re sanctioning Bangladesh–and mentioning China, North Korea, and Myanmar in the same breath–you’re not giving a pass,” Kugelman said.
However, that does not mean that the US is giving up on Bangladesh, he said.
“Washington may well have been using tough love, in effect telegraphing a message of ‘We want to work with you more closely, but to do that you have to clean up your human rights record’.”
Illinois State University Distinguished Professor of Political Science Ali Riaz said the three factors likely behind the US actions are: the worsening human rights situation in Bangladesh; Biden administration’s decision to fight authoritarianism and violation of human rights; and the US’s increasing interests in the region due to growing geopolitical and geostrategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region, including Bangladesh.
“…The US thinks that the human rights abuse in Bangladesh ‘threatens US national security interests,” he said in an email interview.
WILL US ALLIES FOLLOW SUIT?
Prof Ali Riaz said the US and its Western allies are now becoming united in the cause of democracy, human rights, and rule of law, and it is the most worrying scenario for Bangladesh.
“In many instances, US actions are supported by its allies. For example, along with Bangladesh, sanctions have been imposed on Myanmar, which was joined by the UK and Canada. Whether the Western countries will follow suit depends on how Bangladesh reacts to it at the diplomatic level and acts as a response.”
Michael Kugelman said the EU, which imports products worth $19 billion from Bangladesh annually, has been making noises about Bangladesh needing to improve its rights record to ensure continued trade privileges.
“It may well piggyback on the US move to put more pressure on Bangladesh on rights, though that won’t necessarily mean sanctions,” Kugelman said.
Both the analysts say Bangladesh’s trade relations with the US, however, would not be affected. Bangladesh exports products to the US worth about $7 billion every year.
“I don’t think Washington wants to imperil the broader relationship. Trade relations with Dhaka are important for Washington. It may want to wall off economic cooperation and other elements of the relationship from the rights issue,” Kugelman said.
“But given Dhaka’s understandably unhappy reaction to the sanctions, that won’t be easy.”
WOULD BANGLADESH SHIFT TOWARDS CHINA?
Ali Riaz said Bangladesh’s overtures towards China began well before the announcement of the US actions. If there is a shift towards China, there must be other reasons — both ideological and economic.
“Besides, you must consider India in this equation. India has been providing unqualified support to the present government since 2009. How would it take [it] if its closest ally turns to its regional rival?” he said.
Kugelman said the move alone would not push Bangladesh into China’s camp.
“Now, if this proves to be the opening salvo of a flurry of punitive measures directed at Bangladesh because of its rights record, then we could see Bangladesh move more in that direction.”
Beijing, however, may capitalize on Washington’s move and try to intensify efforts to court Bangladesh, Kugelman said.
CHALLENGES FOR BANGLADESH
Prof Ali Riaz said the US not inviting Bangladesh to the Democracy Summit was a signal that the US is not happy with the state of governance in Bangladesh, particularly on the questions of human rights and democracy. As for the sanctions, it is a message that the US is willing to take punitive actions.
“The primary challenge for Bangladesh is how will it respond – it can adopt a belligerent posture towards the US or act to address the fundamental issue while maintaining the collaborative relationship in other sectors, for example trade and security cooperation.”
Kugelman said the biggest immediate challenge is reputational as the US sanctioned a key Bangladeshi security institution in the same statement that sanctioned China, Myanmar, and North Korea.
“You never want to be clubbed with those countries when it comes to human rights issues. It will only sully your global image.”
Prof Ali Riaz says 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 review the role of Rab and overall human rights situation in the country, and act in earnest.
A starting point could be the implementation of the 2019 recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT). The government actions will speak louder than anything else.
“If the government has nothing to hide, as it repeatedly claims, it should not be afraid to cooperate with the UN body and implement its recommendations.”
Kugelman suggested that Bangladesh avoid the two extreme policy responses — dismantling the Rab altogether, or ignoring the sanctions and doing nothing.
Bangladesh needs to make changes that ensure that Rab is more accountable and doesn’t enjoy impunity, in order to rein in its rights abuses and other excesses, he said.
“This would allow a key counterterrorism and counter-narcotics institution to remain in place, while also taking steps that improve Dhaka’s chances of eventually having the sanctions removed.”
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT IS THINKING?
Foreign ministry officials said Bangladesh has a multidimensional relationship with the US, a major development and trade partner.
“Though the US sanction triggers concerns, it is also an opportunity,” said an official.
Asked, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said Bangladesh will move forward with its relationship with the US and is now sorting the issues out.
“We expressed our feeling with the US ambassador. We said we were surprised by the US sanction because Rab has done a lot of good work, including preventing drug trafficking, human trafficking and extremism — issues that are of common interest to Bangladesh and US,” he told this correspondent.
“Rab follows procedures. If anyone [of Rab] is accused, actions are taken. We will share our information with them so that there is no misunderstanding.”
Asked if the government is thinking of any correction of any Rab mistakes in the past, he said there may be mistakes and, of so, scope for improvement.
“The question of correction comes when there are mistakes. There is no issue of correction at this moment. We follow legal process. So, there can be improvement,” Masud Bin Momen said.