Monday, 23 May, 2022

US Sanction on RAB: Was It the Last Resort?

Nandita Roy

On 10 December 2021, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the elite paramilitary force of Bangladesh, as well as seven of its current and former officers, accusing them of human rights abuses and abductions. Rather than slinging mud by being involved in the dirty debates whether the sanctions are really effective tool or not; whether the sanction is part of US strategic move against China in South Asia or the results of misreading Bangladesh, it is need of the hour to find the answer to a simple question, "Is the sanction only option left available to the USA?"

Generally, the US imposes sanctions with an intention to alter the strategic decisions of state and non-state actors that it thinks to threaten its interests or breach international behavioural norms. The question, "are the sanctions effective?" splits the policy wonks into two schools. One group argues that sanctions are often imposed inequitably and rarely successful in bringing the desired outcome, while the other group supports sanctions justifying that they are effective foreign policy instruments for the USA. To put in perspective, the recent US sanction on RAB, a force that successfully spearheaded the hunt for drug smugglers, militants, and transnational terrorists as shared priorities with the US, it is imperative to analyze the historical background, current condition, and future prospect of Bangladesh-US bilateral engagement.   

The journey of US-Bangladesh relations started with the US recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation-state on 4 April 1972. They have a shared vision for a secure, inclusive, and prosperous future. The US, one of the most trusted development partners of Bangladesh, is the single largest export destination for Bangladesh with shipments worth almost $7 billion, nearly 90 percent of which comes from the country’s flagship the ready-made garments (RMG) sector. The two-way trade between these two countries reached a $9 billion landmark in 2019. Bangladesh is the largest recipient of US assistance in South Asia after Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also, the US is one of the principal strategic military allies of Bangladesh, with arms purchases of around $110 million in 2010-2019, with substantial defence exchange and cooperation. Though the above data transmit a positive signal about the depth and warmth of US-Bangladesh relations, why did the US impose this sudden sanction?

Historically, the US imposed sanctions on those state and non-state actors with whom the US has strained relations and when the US thinks that there is no option left for discussion or they will not pay heed to any constructive comments. As Bangladesh is one of the most trusted allies of the USA in South Asia, this sudden sanction surprises the other friendly countries of the USA. According to the Bangladesh Government, the sanctions have been imposed "unilaterally" without any "prior information". The US decided to impose sanctions on RAB based on the allegations of NGOs without hearing Bangladesh government's opinion or even without conducting any independent investigations. Although the concerned US authority provided explanations for the sanction, it seems like a one-sided decision as the US didn't take into account Bangladesh's remarks on these allegations. If the US proves to be the custodian of global democracy, then it must have discussed its concern, before imposing sanctions, with Bangladesh and considered its counterpart's logical explanation. This raises a new question, “What else could have been done despite imposing sanctions?”

Bangladesh and the USA hold an annual Partnership Dialogue, established in 2012, to advance their shared bilateral, regional, and global objectives. This dialogue also helps these two moderate and pluralistic nations to generate strategic direction to ongoing and future cooperative moves. In this platform, these two countries may discuss any issue, e.g., trade and investment, security, development and governance, regional cooperation etc., to find fruitful solutions towards a deeper and border relationship. Instead of imposing sudden sanctions on RAB, the Biden administration had the option of discussing the allegation on RAB that the US thinks as a matter of concern. The US could have discussed the issues in the Partnership Dialogue or could have arranged bilateral redressing dialogue with Bangladesh where they could provide suggestions and guidelines to bring positive reform in the RAB. This could have brought much more fruitful results as Bangladesh has a proven track record of accepting constructive criticisms from the USA. If Bangladesh had not listened to any positive suggestions for its security forces, then the US could have gone for its trump card- “the sanction”. The US image in the world court would have brightened, instead of being questioned, if it followed the aforementioned procedures which Bangladesh, like any sovereign state, may expect from the USA.

Bangladesh always tries to maintain a cosy relationship with the USA not only because of the US influence in the world but also as part of implementing the core mantra of its foreign policy “Friendship towards all, malice towards none”. Considering the geopolitical eminence and commercial noteworthiness of Bangladesh, the US should not ignore one of its most trusted allies, Bangladesh, in South Asia. Coercion, in the name of sanction, may have long-standing devastating effects on the bilateral ties between Bangladesh and the USA with political and ethical concerns. And, the profound long-run fallout of this sanction could be pushing Bangladesh towards the geostrategic orbit of China. Not to mention, the fruitful outcome that can be generated through discussion and bilateral talks cannot be garnered by sanction.


The writer is a women's rights activist