One Year of US Sanctions: Denial and Defiance
A year after the United States imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its former and current officials for gross violation of human rights, it is pertinent to ask whether it has impacted Bangladesh, especially in addressing human rights violations perpetrated by law enforcement agencies and the impunity the members of these forces enjoy. On December 10, 2021, Human Rights Day, the US Treasury imposed these sanctions; concurrently, the Department of State designated two officials as ineligible to enter the US. The allegations against RAB of perpetrating extrajudicial killings and engaging in enforced disappearances were neither new, nor did they come as a surprise, because international human rights groups have been making these allegations with credible evidence for almost a decade. Members of the US Senate urged the State and Treasury Departments to impose sanctions in October 2020. As such, these actions were viewed by many as a long time in the making.
The Bangladesh government's reaction was quick and predictable – denial. The government has been denying any instance of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances for years, at international forums and in bilateral exchanges. But it was also evident that the government was rattled by the sudden actions of the US government. Bangladesh's image on the global stage took a hit; those who were not closely following the political situation in Bangladesh and were unaware of the extent of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances came to know that such incidents are prevalent and that state actors enjoy impunity. The government's denial was less convincing, particularly due to its unwillingness to hold any investigations under international supervision. In some measures, the US sanctions and subsequent media coverage shed light on the democratic backsliding in the country.
Soon after the sanctions, the government reactivated lobbyists in Washington, DC to convince US policymakers that they were ill-informed, and later considered appointing lawyers to plead for the sanctions' removal. But those familiar with the US policymaking processes reminded that these actions would bear no fruit. In the meantime, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen claimed that those listed as victims of enforced disappearance by UN bodies "have actually drowned in the Mediterranean."
Instead of trying to address the incidents of enforced disappearance, taking measures to find those who have remained unaccounted for, and reforming the unaccountable system within RAB, police began to put pressure on the victims' families and reportedly coerced them to sign statements stating that they had deliberately misled the police by concealing information. These actions only indicated that the government was more interested in covering up and continuing the practice. By March, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina questioning the "motive" of the sanctions, a clear message was sent that defiance would be the government's strategy, and it was followed. In August, when the UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet visited Bangladesh, the government continued its claim that the list provided by the human rights groups of enforced disappearance was untrue.
Further defiance of the government is revealed in its decisions to award medals to Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun and Col Khan Mohammad Azad, two sanctioned RAB officials, in January 2022, and to appoint Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun to the position of inspector general of police (IGP) in September. Benazir Ahmed, the former RAB chief who was the IGP at the time of the sanctions, was nominated by the government to represent Bangladesh in the third United Nations Chiefs of Police Summit in late August. Mr Ahmed also attended a civic reception, which was attended by the officials of the Bangladesh Mission in the UN. The government and the new RAB chief has unequivocally stated that there will be no reform of RAB, which the US has insisted is a prerequisite for rescinding the sanctions.
These series of events show that after the initial reaction of trepidation, the Bangladesh government has doubled down on its position and has continued to keep RAB above scrutiny. However, it is worth noting that since the imposition of sanctions, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have declined. For example, according to the human rights group Odhikar, between January and September of 2022, 25 people were victims of extrajudicial killings by various law enforcement agencies. Data gathered for a study by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) revealed that between January and September of 2021, 59 people were such victims. The total number of victims stood at 78 at the end of 2021 (CGS, "Executions at Will?" March 2022). As for enforced disappearances, Odhikar documented 16 cases between January and September of 2022. The comparable number for 2021, according to another CGS study, was 22; the total cases were 24 in 2021 (CGS, "Where are They?" March 2022). The drop in the numbers of victims of these two instruments of gross human rights violations by state actors is positive, but far from satisfactory. Even one death, one enforced disappearance is one too many. However, even the slight decline shows that these incidents were not sporadic, but systematic.
It is also necessary to note that the action against RAB is a part of deep concerns regarding the overall human rights situation in Bangladesh. Such concerns are not of the US only, as recent statements of various missions and the UN demonstrate. Continued violations of human rights using state apparatuses including other law enforcement agencies may not be overlooked in the future. In the past years, the government has not only curtailed freedom of expression and assembly, but it has also used state institutions to silence its critics and political opponents in a brutal manner.
What Angelita Baeyens, vice-president of international advocacy and litigation at Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, said in August is worth recalling, "The total denial of the problem by the government further confirms the level of tolerance and involvement of the Bangladeshi authorities in it. Further, it signals a complete lack of will to change course, which is extremely concerning and shouldn't go unnoticed by the international community." Perhaps Bangladesh's strategy of denial and defiance is not going unnoticed and may have some consequences in the future.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University in the US, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council.