India to represent Bangladesh's interests?
Bangladesh has sought India's cooperation in lifting US sanctions against Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen confirmed on Tuesday that Bangladesh had not only sought India's cooperation in the matter, but also that non-resident Indians living in the United States (NRIs) had requested the US government to do so (Prothom Alo, 26 April 2022). This news not only raises many questions, but also raises concerns. It cannot be considered as a diplomatic action, but rather evidence of Bangladesh's diplomatic failure to lift the embargo on the RAB.
After the US imposed sanctions on RAB and seven current and former RAB officials on 10 December, Bangladesh responded angrily by calling the then US Ambassador Earl Miller and expressing its objection. Bangladesh government did not consider the decision of imposing ban appropriate without consulting them. Foreign Minister Momen made this observation during a meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on 16 December. In a letter to Blinken in early January, Momen praised RAB and explained why the human rights situation in the country was satisfactory. After the initial irate reaction, Bangladesh's approach became increasingly softer. Foreign secretary Masud bin Momen said the sanctions were based on "groundless and fabricated information".
The government and its supporters were reluctant to accept that such a decision was not adopted all of a sudden. In 2020, top members of Congress made similar requests to the State Department. The government also hinted at who might have provided the alleged misinformation. They pointed at BNP, alleging that the party had appointed lobbyists in the United States for the purpose. The government also hired lobbyists to deal with the situation, though it claimed that these were not lobbyists, but public relations or PR firms (Prothom Alo, 26 January 2022). The government did not take into account the suggestion of some quarters to talk directly with the United States to lift the embargo. The foreign minister said in the parliament, "If they are provided with the accurate information, the US will surely lift the embargo on RAB. But it will take some time.” Now that they have been seeking India’s help, the question is, is that time over?
The United States has held direct talks with the Bangladesh government more than once in March and April. The issue was discussed when Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State, visited Dhaka in March for a partnership dialogue. Nuland then said, "The lifting of sanctions is a complex issue." Bangladesh government announced its plan in the meeting, outlining what steps it would take. The US-Bangladesh security dialogue in April also discussed the sanctions against RAB.
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The government has repeatedly said, "RAB has played a leading role in combating terrorism, violent extremism, drug trafficking and other international crimes." Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said, "RAB is an embodiment of trust" while the State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said, RAB is a "symbol of justice." It is not clear why law enforcement will be a symbol of justice. Although the question of how the RAB could have the responsibility of judgement can be spared for the time being, the question remains why it is necessary to seek the help of a third country to refute allegations against the elite force that is involved in state security.
It is not incomprehensible why Bangladesh has become dependent on India. The first thing is India's political alliance with Bangladesh's rulers and India's role in Bangladesh's internal politics. The dependence of those in power on India is well known. Before the 2014 elections, Indian foreign secretary Sujata Singh came to Dhaka and arranged for Jatiya Party to participate in the elections with Awami League. India's role in the country's internal politics is so strong that before the 2018 elections, not only Awami League representatives, but also BNP leaders sought help from New Delhi. As a result, seeking India's help is not surprising.
The second reason is the close India-US relationship. Washington has been looking at small countries in the region through the lens of Delhi. As a result, the Bangladesh government is anticipating that New Delhi's lobbying will work. But it is important to consider whether India maintains the same relations with the US now.
Due to the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the United States has been looking at Bangladesh differently since 2019. Speaking at a virtual briefing on Indo-Pacific Strategy held in Washington in September 2020, Laura Stone, the US State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia, said, "The United States does not see Bangladesh through the lens of Delhi." (Manabzamin 16 September 2020) But the bigger question is if the ban on RAB is against the national interests of Bangladesh, then why will India act in the interests of Bangladesh? India or a third party will make a recommendation only when its own interests are involved.
If the decision of 'outsourcing' is made to represent the national interests of Bangladesh, then the citizens of Bangladesh have reason to be worried. The government of Bangladesh and the ruling party are often vexed over the image of the country. There is even a law to punish those who tarnish the image of the state. Will this decision not tarnish the image of Bangladesh in the international arena?
Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said, "Non-resident Indians living in the United States have also requested the US government in this regard." Any individual or organisation can make the request to the US government. But two things stand out here. Firstly, it seems from the foreign minister’s remark that it has done with the knowledge of the government. The question is, were they requested by the government? Has that request been made to any organisation? Secondly, why did this request have to come from the citizens of India even though there are millions of Bangladeshi expatriates and Bangladeshi-Americans living in the United States?
The initiative and efforts of the Bangladesh government to lift the ban on RAB is natural. But the appropriate steps for this must be understood first and then work done accordingly. Peter Haas, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, recently maintained that "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 does so while respecting basic human rights." (Prothom Alo, 24 April 2022).
It should also be kept in mind that reining in RAB's behaviour will not improve the human rights situation in the country, it is also necessary to improve the overall political situation as well. The task of the government is to work towards that goal and to take specific steps. This does not require the help from third countries. Consigning someone else to look after the national interest is not dignified for Bangladesh, nor is it positive for the sovereignty of the country.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA, Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.