Rights issues taken up selectively

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The United States appears to be using human rights issues and the economic difficulties that Bangladesh is facing to mount pressure on it to cooperate with America’s geo-political schemes, sources in Bangladesh say. Washington is keen that Bangladesh signs certain defence-related pacts and enters the QUAD to counterbalance Chinese influence in Bangladesh and South Asia. Bangladeshi sources suspect that the US is using their country’s vulnerabilities for this purpose.    

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has been activated on issues such as involuntary disappearances and alleged suppression of human rights organisations and activists. But the UN and the US appear to be selective about using rights issues depending on their geopolitical utility. For reasons best known to them, the Western powers appear to be averse to taking any concrete action to see that the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are taken back by Myanmar’s military junta.

Activation of UNHRC

On June 27, 2022, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) wrote to the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh in New York to say that the OHCHR is compiling a report on “cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.” The letter sought inputs from the mission by July 15.

The OHCHR’s draft report on Bangladesh said, on February 21, 2022, Special Procedures Mandate holders addressed allegations of intimidation and harassment of relatives of disappeared persons, human rights defenders and civil society organisations. It alleged that between December 2021 and February 2022, the authorities ‘raided’ some homes of the disappeared and intimidated the relatives. On 14 March 2022 the mandate holders called on the authorities to cease ‘reprisals’ against the relatives for talking to the mandate holders as this could have a ‘chilling effect’ on others wanting to testify. The Bangladesh government replied in May, that it was investigating, along with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of 76 cases. Since it did not have any data on the said cases, it had to visit these homes to get information, the government said. On 5 February 2022, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister told the media that “certain UN bodies transmitted to the government an inaccurate list of disappeared people.”

The OHCHR document also referred to the persecution of the rights organisation Odhikar and its Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan and Director Nasiruddin Elan. They had been accused of anti-State activities. Odhikar’s Bank accounts were frozen under a 2016 Act. In December 2021, the mandate holders addressed the issue of Khan and Elan relating to a 2013 case against them under the Information and Technology Act of 2006, but to no avail

Rapid Action Battalion

On 10 December 2010, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) a counter-terrorism and anti-drug trafficking force. Seven of its current and former officers were sanctioned due to “serious human rights violations” including engineering involuntary disappearances of political opponents.

Bangladesh described the allegations as ‘outlandish’. Bangladeshis pointed out that several Western countries had provided support to RAB and worked closely with it as they viewed RAB as a key force against terrorism. In 2009, the US Ambassador in Dhaka, James Moriarty, had described RAB as the “country’s premier counterterrorism force” and opined that it is “best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

In March 2022, the US reiterated that it will not lift the ban on RAB. Ambassador Peter Haas said: “There is no scope for repeal of sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion without concrete action and accountability. We want to see a RAB that remains effective at combatting terrorism, but that it does so while respecting basic human rights.”

Rohingya Refugees

Despite an overt sympathy for the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladesh, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s  May 2021 announcement of a grant of US$ 155 million for refugee welfare, Bangladeshis complain that the US has done precious little to get the Myanmar junta to take back the refugees as per the 2017 agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar’s former civilian government. On the contrary, it is alleged that Margaret Daugherty, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went to the largest refugee camp in Katupalong in Cox’s Bazaar on February 13, 2020, and asked refugee leader, Razia Sultana, to boycott the Repatriation Agreement in the “absence of guarantees of safety in Myanmar.”

But Bangladesh views the issue very differently. In its view, there is a threat of drug trafficking and Islamic radicalism emanating from the refugee camps. Bangladesh desperately wants repatriation, not grants to maintain refugees in the country.   According to The Daily Star, the Western powers’ and the UN’s disassociation from the repatriation process is due to Myanmar’s influence over them.

But the US appears to have a deep interest in the refugees.  Bangladeshis were intrigued about the frequent visits of US and Western missions to the Rohingya refugee camps in September, October and November 2021. They are also intrigued by the US Embassy’s signing a lease agreement with a hotel in Cox Bazaar for five exclusive and completely sealed off underground car parks with surveillance equipped supplied by the embassy. 

Defence Pacts

With the ban on RAB on, the US has been pressing Bangladesh to join the anti-China QUAD, and also sign two defense agreements, viz., the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA).

US officials say that GSOMIA is a “reciprocal legally-binding agreement that ensures governments understand and commit to protecting classified military information. The GSOMIA does not obligate governments to share classified information or material. It ensures protection of the information shared by partner governments.”

Explaining the ACSA agreement, a US official is quoted as saying that its purpose is to allow US and partner nations’ forces procure and pay for common types of supplies and services. It could cover everything from food, water, clothing, transportation, training, petroleum, ammunition, maintenance to medical services.

“The agreement does not in anyway commit a partner nation to military action nor does it authorise stationing of ships, aircraft or military personnel in foreign countries. It only serves to simplify procurement agreement, logistic support, supplies, and services between partner forces,” the official said.

Asked if the defence agreements were meant to promote Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) or counter China, the US official said it was not about IPS or countering China. The US was only responding to requests from Bangladesh. US and Bangladesh have military cooperation, including for training Bangladeshi peacekeepers, holding counter-terrorism exercises, and preparing for disaster response.

The US provided US$5.3 million to cover the total cost of procurement and delivery of five Metal Shark boats to support the maritime security objectives of the Bangladesh Navy.  The US also provided US$3.3 million to send 233 members of the Bangladesh military to attend various military professionalisation courses in the US and the wider Indo-Pacific region, US officials said, “We desire to support the Bangladesh Military Forces Goal 2030, as Bangladesh seeks to modernize its military.”

Bangladesh reportedly feels constrained to accept drafts of the agreements proposed by the US. Bangladesh is seeking to buy advanced equipment from the US as part of its goal to modernise the military by 2030.

Given its constraints, Bangladesh has also been unable to categorically decline the invitation to join QUAD. Dhaka’s case is that QUAD should be an economic alliance, not directed against any country (in this case China, which is a major investor in Bangladesh). But the US is likely to keep up the pressure on Bangladesh on this issue, as it did in the case of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant to Nepal this year. In Pakistan, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had charged that a top US State Department official had warned of consequences to Pakistan if he remained Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Khan attributed his ouster as a consequence of this warning.

By a Special Correspondent