Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) stand guard during a rally by the Bangladesh nationalist Party (BNP) in Dhaka December 19, 2011. BNP leaders have announced that they will organize a public procession in the city on Wednesday protesting the government's "suppression of opposition activists" and police obstruction during Monday's demonstration, local media reported. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST) - RTR2VGCT
Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) stand guard during a rally by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Dhaka on December 19, 2011. Photo: Reuters / Andrew Biraj

On December 10, 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 getting involved in the debates over whether or not sanctions are really effective tools, whether these sanctions are part of a US strategic move against China in South Asia, or whether they are simply the results of misreading Bangladesh, it is the need of the hour to answer a simple question: “Were sanctions the only option left available to the US?”

Generally, the US imposes sanctions with an intention to alter the strategic decisions of state and non-state actors that it thinks threaten its interests or breach international behavioral norms. The question of whether sanctions are effective splits the policy wonks into two schools.

One group argues that sanctions are often imposed inequitably and are rarely successful in bringing the desired outcome, while the other group supports sanctions as effective foreign-policy instruments for the US.

To put in perspective the recent US sanctions on the RAB, a force that has successfully spearheaded the hunts 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 prospects of Bangladesh-US bilateral engagement.

Longtime partners

The journey of US-Bangladesh relations started with Washington’s recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation-state on April 4, 1972. Since then, the two countries have had a shared vision for a secure, inclusive, and prosperous future.

The US, the most trusted development partner of Bangladesh, is the latter’s single largest export destination, with shipments mostly from the country’s ready-made-garments sector.

Two-way trade reached a US$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 between 2010 and 2019, with substantial defense 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 these sanctions?

Historically, the US has imposed sanctions on those state and non-state actors with which it has strained relations and when Washington thinks there is no option left for discussion, or that the concerned actors will not pay heed to any constructive talks. As Bangladesh is one of the most trusted allies of the US in South Asia, this sudden decision to sanction the RAB has surprised other countries that are friendly toward the US.

‘Unilateral’

According to the Bangladeshi government, the sanctions were imposed “unilaterally” without any “prior information.” The US based its decision on the allegations of some non-governmental organizations without hearing the Bangladeshi government’s opinion or even conducting any independent investigations.

Although the US Treasury Department provided explanations for the sanctions, it seems like a one-sided decision as the US didn’t take into account Bangladesh’s response these allegations. If the US purports to be the custodian of global democracy, then it ought to have discussed its concerns with Bangladesh and considered its counterpart’s explanation.

This raises a new question: “What else could have been done instead of imposing sanctions?”

Bangladesh and the US hold an annual Partnership Dialogue, established in 2012, to advance their shared bilateral, regional, and global objectives. This dialogue aims to help these two moderate and pluralistic nations to generate a strategic direction to ongoing and future cooperative moves.

In this platform, these two countries may discuss any issue, such as trade and investment, security, development and governance, and regional cooperation, to find fruitful solutions toward a deeper and broader relationship.

Instead of imposing sudden sanctions, US President Joe Biden’s administration had the option of discussing the allegations against the RAB that the US views as a matter of concern. The US could have discussed the issues in the Partnership Dialogue, or it could have arranged a separate dialogue with Bangladesh where it could have offered suggestions and guidelines on positive reforms in the RAB.

This could have brought much more fruitful results, as Bangladesh has a proven track record of accepting constructive criticisms from the US. If Bangladesh had not listened to any positive suggestions for its security forces, then the US could have played its trump card – sanctions.

The US image in the world court would have brightened, instead of being questioned, if it had followed the aforementioned procedures, which Bangladesh, like any sovereign state, should be able to expect from the US.

Dhaka always tries to maintain a cozy relationship with Washington, 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 in South Asia.

Coercion in the form of sanctions may have long-standing ill effects on the ties between Bangladesh and the US, with political and ethical concerns. And the profound long-term fallout from these sanctions could push Bangladesh further toward the geo-strategic orbit of China. Not to mention the fruitful outcomes that could be generated through discussion and bilateral talks that cannot be achieved by sanctions.

Nandita Roy

Nandita Roy is a women's rights activist. She holds a master's degree from the Department of Women and Gender Studies, University of Dhaka.