US watching processes to free, fair polls
Out of the five largest economies in the world today, three -- China (2), Japan (3) and India (5) -- are in Asia. The robust economic growth of Asian giants, China in particular, is rapidly reshaping the global distribution of power. With the global power shifting to Asia, the world's number one power USA rushes to join the geopolitical game, in which Bangladesh too, is likely to get pulled into.
Peter D Haas, the new US ambassador, who has been openly critical of human rights violations, accountability of Rab, political violence, touched on a few thorny points in an exclusive written interview with The Daily Star recently.
The Daily Star (DS): Based on the solid foundation built between the two countries over the last 50 years, how do you see the future relationship of Bangladesh and the US? What are the elements needed to improve the relationship?
Peter Haas (PH): I am amazed at just how much Bangladesh has accomplished over these 50 years and proud of the support the United States has provided to the Bangladeshi people and its government. We have collaborated across many sectors, and I predict that over the next 50 years, our partnership will become even stronger.
The United States will continue to work with Bangladesh and build on the progress we have made together in food security, health, and reducing poverty. We will also identify new and innovative approaches to address issues like climate change, promoting democratic principles, increasing trade, and sustaining Bangladesh's impressive economic growth. I am extremely optimistic about our future together.
DS: What is the latest US position, 10 months after the sanctions on Rab? Is Washington satisfied with the measures already taken by Dhaka? Specifically, what more is required?
PH: The US Department of Treasury is the lead agency for sanctions-related matters. For that Department to consider lifting sanctions, there must be accountability (i.e., holding those involved with human rights violations accountable) and change. The nomination of a human rights-sanctioned individual (just-retired IGP Benazir Ahmed) to attend an international conference does not signal accountability or change.
More broadly, let me emphasise, sanctions need not limit our relations or cooperation in other areas. The United States and Bangladesh have a broad relationship and deep cooperation in many areas, including trade, development, health, and security.
DS: You have repeatedly spoken of fair and inclusive elections in Bangladesh as the Biden administration's key foreign policy focus is democracy and human rights. Do you think that Bangladesh is going the right way ahead of the upcoming national elections in early 2024? Do you have any suggestions?
PH: The United States believes the strength of a democracy rests in the ability of its people to make their voices heard. Our policy on the Bangladeshi elections -- or anywhere for that matter -- is that the people of the country should be able to choose their own government through free and fair elections, conducted in accordance with international standards. We do not support any political party.
News reports of intimidation and political violence in Bangladesh are disturbing. Free and fair elections cannot take place in such an environment. We call on all parties to respect the rule of law and to refrain from violence, coercion, intimidation, or retribution. Moreover, for journalists to be able to cover the elections freely and fully, they must be protected from harassment and violence.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said she and her government want free and fair parliamentary elections. We welcome these words and look forward to understanding how the government will ensure free and fair processes. We support constructive actions Bangladesh can take, ahead of the polls, to carry out a credible process.
DS: The US considers labour rights a very important issue. Exactly, what are the labour issues that the US is concerned with, and where do you think reforms are needed? What do you think is the overriding labour rights issue that Bangladesh needs to address?
PH: Although Bangladesh has taken some initial steps to amend its labour laws, workers continue to be subjected to unfair labour practices, and they too often face retaliation when they complain or attempt to organise collectively for change.
I note Bangladesh has adopted an occupation, health, and safety national plan and implemented remediation of some factories after the Rana Plaza tragedy. Yet, we continue to be concerned over workplace safety issues when we hear about deadly industrial incidents and workplace fires.
Due to these labour rights issues, Bangladesh has been ineligible for the Generalised System of Preferences trade benefit. The lack of significant progress in this area prevents funding of development projects in Bangladesh by the US International Development Finance Corporation.
The US and Bangladeshi governments meet several times a year to discuss the necessary changes to protect labour rights in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has indicated it is working to further amend its labour laws. We are committed to supporting Bangladesh to improve its labour rights, including through targeted development assistance.
DS: Bangladesh is paying a hefty price for the carbon pollution by global economic giants including the United States. Is there any prospect for US investment or cooperation in combating climate fallouts?
PH: The United States applauds Bangladesh's leadership in addressing climate change and is a proud partner in addressing this problem.
Earlier this year, the US embassy launched a $20 million project to protect critical forests and wetland areas in Bangladesh from degradation and help local communities develop long-term resilience to climate change. Our development programmes also strengthen resilience in communities most vulnerable to disasters or climate-related impacts -- including support for early warning systems and shelters to mitigate severe weather emergencies, as well as interventions like helping farmers adopt climate-smart agriculture techniques.
DS: Stability in Asia has suddenly become a major concern as the Biden administration aggressively executes its new Indo-Pacific strategy. The common perception is that this geopolitical development has placed Bangladesh's traditional relationship with China under stress. Is a vibrant Sino-Bangla relationship an obstacle to a warm US-Bangladesh relationship?
PH: The United States' vision for the Indo-Pacific is a free and open region comprised of nations that are independent, strong, prosperous, and secure. We also envision a region that is more resilient to global challenges like pandemics and climate change, and in which nations and peoples are more interconnected. This is a vision we share with many of our allies and partners, including Bangladesh.
Let me be direct about the relationship between the United States and China by quoting President Biden at the UN General Assembly earlier this month. "As we manage shifting geopolitical trends, the United States will conduct itself as a reasonable leader. We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War. We do not ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner."
We know that many countries, including the United States, have vital economic and people-to-people ties with China that they want to preserve. Our engagement in the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries. Instead, our engagement is about advancing a positive, shared vision for creating a region where all nations can thrive.