Last Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on an elite Bangladesh paramilitary force, citing “serious human rights abuses.” It also sanctioned the current director of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and five former senior RAB officials, including a travel ban on Benazir Ahmed, now Bangladesh’s top police chief. (The United States also issued sanctions on entities and individuals in China, Myanmar, and North Korea.)
The new sanctions came on International Human Rights Day, and it marks the first time Washington ever sanctioned Dhaka, which it has described as a key partner. Although the United States likely wants to maintain a strong relationship with Bangladesh, the decision has already dealt a blow to bilateral ties. Some Bangladeshi officials have downplayed the impact of the sanctions, but others have slammed them.
Sanctioning the RAB makes sense from a human rights perspective: The force has carried out more than 1,200 extrajudicial killings and 170 enforced disappearances in the past two decades, according to Bangladeshi rights group Odhikar. It makes less sense from a geopolitical perspective. The United States has emphasized partnership with Bangladesh, suggesting a willingness to overlook its human rights record. A 2019 U.S. State Department document identified areas of potential cooperation with Dhaka—from counterterrorism to trade.
In February, U.S. officials met in Washington with Bangladesh’s army chief, then embroiled in a corruption scandal. At the time, a U.S. Army spokesperson said the two armies “share a close partnership.” And just last month, senior State Department official Kelly Keiderling visited Dhaka and spoke of a desire to expand the relationship. The sanctions came just a few weeks later.
So what gives? One possibility is the Biden administration has decided to make Bangladesh a prominent target of its democracy promotion campaign. (This would explain Washington’s decision not to invite Dhaka to last week’s democracy summit.) But this would fly in the face of Keiderling’s recent comments, suggesting the United States sees Bangladesh as lacking sufficient strategic value to warrant a close partnership.
U.S. sanctions could also be a shot across the bow to warn Bangladesh about the risks of its growing relationship with China. But that is also unlikely given that sanctioning Dhaka could drive it closer to Beijing. Bangladesh currently seeks to balance its relations with China, the United States, and India. But it may be more receptive to Beijing’s overtures if Washington continues to take aim at its human rights record.
The more likely explanation is the United States simply sought to push Bangladesh on its human rights record, not give up on the relationship. As one former Dhaka-based U.S. diplomat put it, “sanctioning RAB may well have just been a low hanging fruit given long-standing concerns about its actions.” On Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson insisted the United States still seeks cooperation, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with his Bangladeshi counterpart, A.K. Abdul Momen.
But the damage is done. For Bangladesh, sanctioning the RAB amounts to an attack on an institution that has carried out successful counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations. In an ideal world, Dhaka would eliminate the RAB’s culture of impunity—resulting in the removal of sanctions and a boost for U.S.-Bangladeshi relations. But in reality, an increasingly undemocratic Dhaka is unlikely to rein the force in.
Source: Foreign Policy