US Sanctions on Bangladesh: What will happen next?

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    US Sanctions on Bangladesh: What will happen next?

    From the streets of Dhaka to the corridors of power, the announcement of US sanctions on personnel of Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion has taken the country by storm.

    US sanctions on former and present serving officials of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is now a topic of conversation everywhere in Bangladesh. Be it clerks in government offices, home-makers, students or businessmen, everyone is seized of the issue.

    Why did matters come to this pass? Most people in Dhaka are convinced this was unfair. “For the middle class, the RAB has always been a reassuring presence during a bandh,” says Jia ul Sikder, a shopkeeper in Dhaka’s Dhanmondi area. 65-year-old Sikder vividly remembers how bandhs, or calls for political lock-downs, would invariably turn violent. “Bandh-imposing goons would beat up cyclists, burn shops, damage vehicles,” he says. “But all that changed when the RAB came in.”

    People around Sikder nod their heads in agreement. There is little debate on how good the RAB is. There is unanimity among people gathered around Sikder that the goons deserved “cross-firings” or “gunfights”, euphemisms for disappearances ending up as faked encounters.

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    US sanctions have followed initial reports from human rights defender groups on extrajudicial killing of 600 people and tortures and enforced disappearances, blame for all of which have been laid at RAB’s doors.

    The discussion leads to cacophony. One way to calm the crowd is to go back to the opening question. Why did matters come to this pass?

    This time, the ‘why’ question has another answer. “The Americans don’t like to see us progressing,” says Farhan, a young shop assistant working with a clothes shop who wishes to go by his first name. “They do not like how we have become close to China,” he says. People around him nod in agreement.

    But there is uncertainty about what will happen next.

    Grim reminder

    A statement accompanying the text of the US’ imposed sanctions on RAB mentioned the case of Teknaf municipal councillor Ekramul Haque who was killed in a “gunfight” with law enforcers on May 26, 2018.

    The gunfight was staged, most people believe, as recordings of his last calls to his family went viral over social media.

    At the time, Bangladeshi media maintained a long silence on the “gunfight”.

    Bangladesh’s peacekeeping missions

    Calling for a ban on Bangladesh involvement in peacekeeping, 12 international human rights NGOs asked have signed a letter asking UN Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix to review RAB’s role.

    “If Secretary General Guterres is serious about ending human rights abuses by UN peacekeepers, he will ensure that units with proven records of abuse like the Rapid Action Battalion are excluded from deployment,” Human Rights Watch quoted Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights as saying. “The evidence is clear; now it’s time for the UN to draw a line.”

    In Dhaka’s corridors of power, there is talk about the impact the sanctions will have on the country’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Bangladesh has also announced that it will set up a ‘human rights cell’ to allay doubts on the human rights records of its uniformed personnel.

    He said that the government was open to the idea of hiring lobbyists in New York to correct the impression that Bangladeshi uniformed personnel abuse their powers.

    “We will present the whole truth to the international community,” Bangladesh’s top diplomat, Masud Bin Momen told journalists.

    The Daily Star newspaper, published from Dhaka, quoted Masud Bin Momen as saying that “the way the human rights situation of Bangladesh was presented to the UN or other international bodies was not the whole fact”.

    There is already talk of criminal gangs involved with human trafficking and drugs conspiring against the RAB.

    Bangladesh has consistently been the single largest contributor of human resources to the UN’s various peace keeping forces. The country’s Islamic identity and a neutral image has helped it secure many UN assignments in difficult places around the globe. Besides being prestigious, this has brought lots of revenue to the exchequer.

    As the website of the Bangladesh Army proclaims: “Key factors that aided Bangladesh Army in gaining the global acceptance and credibility are professionalism, discipline, discharging assigned duties with impartiality, maintaining international standard vis-à-vis UN standard and adherence to the mandate.”

    The essay says further, “Moreover, Bangladeshi people are easily moved by the misery of distressed people and hence our troops don’t really hesitate to sacrifice their happiness for others.”

    All of this and Bangladesh’s great image building exercise over the years has taken a beating with the US announcement of sanctions and with talk in some other capitals of the world.


    Image: Wikimedia, Rapid Action Battalion; by Nahid Sultan

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