US envoy: Washington won’t lift sanctions until RAB respects human rights

Jesmin Papri
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US envoy: Washington won’t lift sanctions until RAB respects human rights Rapid Action Battalion personnel escort a suspect after his arrest in Dhaka, Oct. 6, 2019.

Washington will not lift sanctions against Bangladesh’s elite force RAB until it shows it can respect human rights, the new ambassador said in the latest U.S. assessment of an issue that is straining bilateral ties.

In his first public comments on the Rapid Action Battalion sanctions since arriving in Dhaka in March, Ambassador Peter Haas conveyed that U.S. officials would keep working with the South Asian nation to combat terrorism and violent extremism.

“Regarding law enforcement, I will be honest. There is no scope for repeal of sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion without concrete action and accountability,” Haas said Sunday.

“We want to see a RAB that remains effective at combatting terrorism, but that does so while respecting basic human rights.”

Despite those concerns, Haas said, sanctions issued against RAB by the U.S. Treasury on Dec. 10, 2021, do not mean that the two nations cannot enhance their strong law enforcement security cooperation. Those sanctions are against the organization and six officers, including RAB Director General Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun.  

Ambassador Haas made his comments during a seminar in Dhaka on “Bangladesh and the United States Relations: Moving toward Enhanced Cooperation and Partnership,” attended by Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Al-Mamun. The seminar was hosted by the Bangladesh Institute for International and Strategic Studies.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties.

Haas said the U.S. would continue to support counterterrorism and transnational crime policing, the Anti-Terrorism Unit, and the specialized units of the Metropolitan Police in Chattogram, Sylhet and Rajshahi despite the sanctions.

During recent meetings with their U.S. counterparts, including the Partnership Dialogue and bilateral Security Dialogue, Bangladesh officials have called on the U.S. to withdraw the sanctions. In the coming weeks, the two countries are to hold two more meetings – the bilateral Defense Dialogue and the high-level Economic Consultation.

At the Dhaka seminar, Momen highlighted RAB’s role in eradicating terrorism and drug trafficking.

He noted that a former U.S. ambassador had called RAB Bangladesh’s FBI, even as he agreed to the need for accountability for the force’s actions.

“This institution has brought stability not only in Bangladesh, but also in neighboring countries,” Momen said.

Abdullah Al-Mamun, meanwhile, defended RAB at the seminar.

“We have successfully tackled religious extremism and conducted successful operations in eradicating drug smuggling, human trafficking and against illegal weapons,” he said, speaking before Haas.

“We want to take our relationship to new heights in the interest of upholding human rights and the smooth functioning of the elite force,” Al-Mamun said while calling on the U.S. to be involved in building a safe and secure community.

Al-Mamun also highlighted U.S. involvement in RAB activities.

“They [the U.S.] have worked with us before and have had many discussions on our campus,” he said.

In the months since the sanctions were imposed, Bangladesh officials have described the Treasury Department’s move as unexpected. They have blamed different groups in Bangladesh and elsewhere for seeking to discredit the country.

“We believe that the sanctions are unjustifiable, and were imposed based on fabricated and politically motivated inputs given by the same vested quarters,” Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said recently.

Human rights report

In addition to challenging the sanctions, Bangladesh officials have spoken out against the U.S. State Department’s 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report, released earlier this month, raised specific concerns about RAB.

It said three Rohingya were killed in gunfights with RAB in February and July 2021. In addition, the report said that at least one of two Bangladeshis killed in a May 2021 gunfight with security forces was killed by RAB.

“According to international and local civil society, activists, and media, impunity was a pervasive problem in the security forces, including within but not limited to the RAB, BGB [Border Guard Bangladesh], Detective Branch of Police, police and other units,” the report said.

Bangladeshi media said the report relied on questionable sources and contained factually incorrect information.

U.S. Ambassador Peter Haas (left) delivers his address at the “Bangladesh and the United States Relations: Moving toward Enhanced Cooperation and Partnership” seminar in Dhaka, April 24, 2022. [Photo courtesy Bangladesh Institute for International and Strategic Studies]

Bangladesh elections

In his speech on Sunday, Ambassador Haas also spoke about the need for fair polls.

“Let me be clear: the United States will not pick a side in the upcoming elections. We simply hope for a democratic process that allows the Bangladeshi people to freely decide who will run their country,” he said.

“Holding an election consistent with international standards is not just about the day votes are actually cast. Truly democratic elections require the space for civic discourse to take place, an environment where journalists can investigate without fear and the ability for civil society organizations to advocate broadly.”

Haas said he was pleased Momen stated that Bangladesh would welcome international observers during the next election.

He said the two countries could work together to promote democracy and protect human rights, while acknowledging the United States is not perfect.

“We have embarked on our own democratic renewal. This journey includes tackling our own issues with police accountability and ensuring all Americans can cast their ballots on Election Day,” he said.

Momen reiterated Dhaka’s commitment over the last few years to establishing free, fair and transparent elections.

“We had some difficulties but in the last few years, we’ve done very well,” he said.


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