Bangladesh’s special security force unit, the Rapid Action Battalion. Photo: Getty Images

On April 4, the United States marked 50 years of diplomatic relations with Bangladesh. But the real fanfare around the anniversary was about the future of diplomatic relations between the countries in the wake of the US government’s decision last December to impose sanctions against Bangladesh’s special security force unit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has been credibly implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances.  

Established in 2003 with the support of the US and UK as a counterterrorism force, over the years the RAB morphed into a political death squad. The unit’s record of abuses grew so extensive that more than a decade ago the UK government withdrew its support and training for its members after criticism over human-rights violations, and the US extensively limited its support.

Since then, the RAB has been linked to hundreds more cases of disappearances and killings, typically of political opposition figures, dissidents, or others critical of the Bangladeshi government. 

The US government has made clear in all its recent communications – including in meetings between Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and statements by US Ambassador Peter Haas – that while diplomatic relations remain strong, the US has serious concerns about human rights and the future of democracy in Bangladesh.   

The Bangladeshi government, however, appears to be ignoring the US concerns and instead taking a victory lap.  

Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasan Mahmud, for instance, reportedly told the media that US President Joe Biden had praised the abusive Rapid Action Battalion in a private letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and that there were already discussions ongoing about withdrawing the sanctions. 

The US government should make clear that there will be no retractions of human-rights sanctions until the Bangladeshi government carries out credible investigations into the reported abuses that led to sanctions in the first place and takes concrete steps toward accountability.  Biden should clarify reports that he praised the very unit the US just sanctioned, and instead call for it to be disbanded.  

In response to the US sanctions, the Bangladeshi government announced that it would investigate the dozens of enforced disappearances currently pending with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Instead, Bangladeshi authorities have been harassing victims’ families and activists in what appears to be an attempt to cover up allegations and smoke out whoever reported the abuses. 

Victims’ families have reported that the authorities raided their homes in the middle of the night, threatening them and forcing them either to sign blank sheets of paper or sign pre-written statements indicating that a family member was not forcibly disappeared and that they had deliberately misled the police.

The authorities have also been showing up at the offices of Bangladeshi human-rights organizations, pressuring staff to reveal their sources and expose those who reported abuses. 

Instead of responding to the numerous well-documented allegations made against the RAB over the past decade, the Bangladeshi government has continued to make implausible and outlandish denials. 

After US sanctions were announced, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen issued a statement that the sanctions were based on “fabricated and unfounded” allegations and even surmised that perhaps some of the reported victims of enforced disappearance were irregular immigrants who had actually drowned in the Mediterranean.   

While ridiculous, Bangladeshi government denials about this unit’s abuses have become predictable. In 2018, the prime minister’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, wrote without evidence that many of the “disappeared” were in hiding because they were wanted for criminal questioning, concluding that the “world should reject the fairytale of Bangladesh disappearances as the lie that it is.” 

Bangladeshi human-rights organizations had recorded 97 enforced disappearances that year.  

If the Bangladeshi government wants to get the Rapid Action Battalion sanctions lifted, it should stop ignoring US concerns and pretending well-documented abuses are just a “fairytale.” Instead, the government should take concrete steps to hold those responsible for the RAB’s abuses accountable and provide justice to victims and their families.

Here’s where the government could start.

First, Bangladeshi officials, at the highest level, should make strong and repeated public statements that all harassment should stop and that anyone responsible for enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings will be held accountable.  

The government should create an independent commission of inquiry dedicated to investigating all allegations of enforced disappearances and custodial deaths, formed in consultation with independent experts, victims, and their families. The commission should regularly and publicly report on its findings without interference and be mandated to recommend cases for prosecution. 

The government should allow UN experts to visit, investigate, and make appropriate recommendations to ensure justice and accountability, as well as to advise on the structure and mandate of the independent commission of inquiry. 

Finally, it should follow through on the findings of the independent commission and the justice authorities should prosecute fully law-enforcement officers of all ranks, including those with superior authority, where there is evidence they are responsible for abuses.  

The UN, the US, and other countries with human-rights sanctions regimes, including the UK, Canada, Australia and the European Union, may well be watching closely to see how the government responds. Inaction would only further demonstrate the government’s lack of commitment to accountability. 

Kerry Kennedy

Kerry Kennedy is a lawyer, human rights activist and president of Robert F Kennedy Human Rights. She is the daughter of former US attorney general Robert F Kennedy and niece of the late president John F Kennedy.

Tirana Hassan

Tirana Hassan is deputy executive director and chief programs officer at Human Rights Watch.