On December 10, 2021, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its current and former officials accusing of human rights abuses and abductions. Even though the United States and Bangladesh have been enjoying a cozy relationship since the birth of Bangladesh, this sudden human-rights related sanctioning has raised concerns in the South Asian Nation, especially as it has been imposed “unilaterally” without any “prior information.”

Sanctions, an instrument of foreign policy, can be used to create pressure on a state or non-state actor to influence those decisions and actions that are being perceived as threatening to security or violating international behavioral norms. The US government normally slaps sanctions, using it as a carrot and stick policy, on those countries that US views as enemies, e.g., rogue states, those that threaten its national interest, or simply to coerce the target country to do something. As Bangladesh is neither a rogue state nor a threat to US interests, the recent US sanction on Bangladesh, one of the most trusted US allies in South Asia, surprised political analysts across the world.

Generally, when the US imposes sanctions, the opponent states react in way that worsen the situation further. As a friendly country, how Bangladesh responded to the US sanction deserves analysis since it will help to understand how a US ally reacts to such sanctions, compared to the reaction of US enemies.


Bangladesh’s Response

Initially, Bangladesh followed the diplomatic way to communicate with the US government and explain its stance against the allegations. Diplomatic efforts, on the part of Bangladesh, were mainly focused on convincing the US government by conveying the message that Bangladesh has been misrepresented by vested groups. This is how Bangladesh differentiated itself from other countries on which the US has imposed sanctions. For example, North Korea, which has tended to fire fresh missiles in response to US sanctions. Instead of accepting the criticism, rogue states react negatively. But Bangladesh showed a positive attitude, and welcomed constructive suggestions from the US government.

In response to human rights violations, the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh established a human rights cell under the United Nations (UN) to look into human rights issues and abuses requiring attention. In addition, the cell will present facts and figures concerning the human rights situation in Bangladesh before the international community. As it has been established under the UN, it can be expected that the situation will be monitored properly, with accurate data being presented.

According to the Bangladesh government, it has already sent data on the country’ human rights situation and its progress in rescuing those people who allegedly fell victim to enforced disappearances. The law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh have also rescued several people mentioned in the report. It was also argued that the government is working relentlessly to find the whereabouts of the rest of the people.


US Reactions

Gregory W Meeks, the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and an influential US Congressman, in one of his speeches delivered at fundraising luncheon function in New York, said that there is no plan on the part of the USA to impose further sanctions against the security forces of Bangladesh. Also, Meeks hinted about certain vested groups who are strongly lobbying  the Biden Administration to slap further sanctions on Bangladeshi officers and politicians. Though he clearly mentioned that he supports the Biden administration’s stance on RAB, he also made it clear that wholesale sanction against Bangladesh is currently unwarranted by the US government.

April 4, 2022 will mark the golden jubilee of US-Bangladesh relations. In order to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken invited Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen to Washington. This also indicates that the Biden administration has taken Bangladesh’s responses to the US sanction in a positive light. And the relations of these two countries remains intact and friendly as before.

Instead of reacting like a rogue state, Bangladesh handled the US sanction on RAB professionally, with much emphasis on diplomatic maneuvers. The crisis may be resolved soon, but Bangladesh should decode the hidden motive of Washington behind such sanction. What does the US actually expect from Bangladesh? The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a strategic security dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, may be a relevant issue to be considered in this context. Perhaps the US is trying to create pressure on Bangladesh to join its Indo-Pacific military pact to contain China, in which case the Biden administration may slap additional sanctions in the future if Bangladesh fails to meet US expectations.

Bangladesh’s economy is now at the take-off stage, with the potential of graduating from LDC status by 2026, and the country aspires to become a developed economy by 2041. Considering Bangladesh’s economic conditions, the global powers should not involve the country into any geopolitical tug-of-war. Neither Bangladesh can ignore the US and India nor China considering the current global geopolitical situation. Also, it does not comply with Bangladesh’s balancing foreign policy which emphasizes “friendship toward all, malice toward none.” For now, Bangladesh has to ensure neutrality and strike a fine diplomatic balance among the major global powers for its development discourse. Otherwise, the country is going to face more sanctions which will worsen US-Bangladesh relations and ultimately push Bangladesh toward the strategic orbit of China.


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