Sanctions to stay until Rab is accountable, reformed
US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas has said sanctions imposed on Rab and seven of its current and former officials for alleged human rights violations will remain in place until accountability is ensured and reforms are made.
"There is no change in our policy. The sanction is in place. It will remain in place until there is accountability and reform. We said this privately, we said this publicly," he said.
The envoy was speaking at a "Meet the Ambassador" event, jointly organised by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) and German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), at a hotel in the capital yesterday.
He discussed the national elections, human rights, labour rights, Rohingya crisis and Russia-Ukraine war, among other issues.
Haas said as Bangladesh moves closer to graduating from LDC status by 2026, its relationship with the US is also getting a new dimension. The US, therefore, is seeking improvements in judiciary, human rights, good governance and democracy, he added.
The US last year slapped the sanctions on the Rab and its officials and also did not invite Bangladesh to its Democracy Summit. Bangladesh has been trying in various ways to have the sanctions withdrawn.
Haas said the sanctions arenot intended to punish anyone, but to change the behaviour of the force. He said his country was looking for accountability for the past incidents so that they don't recur.
"We noticed a remarkable decline in reported abuses being conducted by Rab since we imposed the sanctions last year…it is a very good signal that the number has decreased, and some people say dramatically."
Asked about enforced disappearances, he said they want an independent mechanism for credible investigations.
The ambassador also said the US wants to see free, fair, inclusive and international standard elections in Bangladesh and the government, the Election Commission, political parties, civil society, and the media have roles to play.
The international community will be watching the elections very keenly, he said, adding that the US does not favour any particular political party.
Talking about the recent political violence, the envoy said a fair election is not possible wherever there is violence.
Enquired about the allegations of election rigging in 2014 and 2018, Haas said, "We tend to focus on today, what is going forward, less about what happened in the past."
He said hundreds of lawsuits were filed following the 2020 US presidential election and those were settled.
The diplomat said Bangladesh has made notable progress in terms of workplace safety in the export-oriented industries since the Rana Plaza accident in 2013, but the US still has concerns.
The US wants freedom of trade unions without facing intimidation, and it is holding continuous conversations with the Bangladesh government, he said.
Haas said governance, labour rights, and investment environment are some of the major factors that can draw more US companies to invest in Bangladesh, which now exports products worth over $8 billion to the US.
Asked if the US would include Bangladesh in its recently launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the envoy said it is a strategy that has a set of principles -- afree, open, resilient, prosperous and secure interconnected region. There is nothing in it about becoming a member, he added.
Asked if the US has any issue with Bangladesh being a signatory to the China-led Belt and Road Initiative, he said it doesn't. "I don't see any immediate contradiction there … it is entirely Bangladesh's decision whether it wants to be part of the BRI or any other organisation."
Talking about the price hike of energy and food commodities, the envoy said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sparked the supply chain crisis, causing a lot of problems. The US or the European Union did not impose sanctions on Russia's oil, gas, fertiliser or agricultural products, he said.
Russia needs to end the war to end the other problems, the diplomat said.
About the Rohingya crisis, Haas said the US has already sanctioned the Myanmar junta leaders, but there is a need for the international community to make an integrated effort.
He said his country was working with the UN Refugee Agency for settling some Rohingyas in the US from this region, including Bangladesh.
The ambassador said the US supports Bangladesh for Rohingya repatriation but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon given the conflicts in Myanmar.
CGS Chairman Manjur A Chowdhury, Executive Director Zillur Rahman and FES Resident Representative Felix Kolbitz also spoke at the event.
Political leaders, academics, former diplomats and journalists were present.