Misleading analysis of US sanctions must be avoided

One needs to be cautious about interpreting the small print of US sanction documents. Photo: Collected

Bangladesh's elite law enforcement force, the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab), which has been subjected to a sanction by the US, has now been applauded by the same government for its role in tackling terrorism, according to some media reports. The 2020 Country Reports on Terrorism, published by the US Department of State on December 16, 2021, which gives an overview of global counterterrorism environment, has reportedly praised Rab for its success in cutting down terror acts in Bangladesh. Some of these Bangladeshi media outlets have also quoted at least two noted experts on international relations saying that this praise proved that the sanctions were not a well-thought-out action, and could have been the result of intense lobbying by some anti-Bangladeshi elements. They argued that these contradictory acts were indicative of a lack of coordination within the US Department of State. If the latter report is correct, then there's every reason to thank those experts for the correct interpretation of these discrepancies in the US policy on Bangladesh. But, what about getting it wrong, and as a result misleading the nation and the government?

Hearing one of those experts—a professor in the country's top university—I went through the report again and found only one reference of Rab in the whole report, which says, "Throughout 2020, the CTTCU and the Rapid Action Battalion established 'deradicalisation and rehabilitation programmes,' in addition to conducting community policing efforts and investigations and arrests of suspected FTFs." Clearly, this description neither praises nor criticises the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crimes unit (CTTCU) of police and Rab.

Before going into continental and country-specific reports in a brief note, under the subhead "The Human Rights Report," it suggests that alleged human rights abuses by security forces may have acted as impediments to counter-terrorism programmes. It says, "In the countries listed below, significant human rights issues influenced the state of terrorist activity in the country and may have impeded effective counterterrorism policies and programmes or supported causes and conditions for further violence. Such human rights issues included, among others, unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention (all of the preceding by both government and non-state actors); harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; violence against and unjustified arrests of journalists; substantial interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association; widespread and pervasive corruption; repression of religious freedom and violence against religious minorities; and forced and bonded labour." The countries listed in the report are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

When the government seems serious about assessing the likely impacts of the US sanctions and considering possible ways out of any adversarial impact, this kind of misleading analysis may prove harmful. The statements issued by two associations of cadre and non-cadre police officers seem quite strange as well, as they spoke about only the seven officials against whom individual sanctions have been slapped, but they remained silent about the sanctions against Rab. The sanctions against those seven individuals, however, were due to their role in Rab. Collective punishment of a whole unit of a country's security forces is quite rare and, therefore, perhaps has greater significance than any individual or individuals.

In the past, sanctions—either economic or military—were used against a regime and a country. But such sanctions have proven to be less effective without a consensus among major powers and getting the maximum number of countries on board. And in many cases, such sanctions also proved counterproductive as the politicians of those countries subjected to sanctions could rally their population, alleging such punitive actions as collective punishment of a nation, and that victimhood made sustaining such sanctions difficult. Hence, came the tool called Smart Sanctions that are targeted to specific persons and entities, and the Global Magnitsky Act has become the most effective tool for the Western democracies. After the US, Canada and the UK have enacted their own Magnitsky acts; a similar legislation is currently being considered by the European Parliament.

The US sanctions have two components: a) Travel ban by the Department of State; and b) the Department of the Treasury ban involving freezing of assets and restricting all kinds of transactions with the subject(s) of the ban. In this context, the gravity of the sanctions against Rab could not be overstated. The Treasury announcement says, "As a result of today's actions, all property and interests in property of the persons designated above that are in the United States or in the possession or control of US persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control). In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked." It is, therefore, quite likely that any security equipment and technology coming to Bangladesh would be falling under additional scrutiny to ensure that the end users are not the subjects of the sanctions. It also makes it almost impossible for global banks having interests in the US to release any assets of Rab they hold or allow any transactions, like paying import bills.

It is still unclear whether these sanctions will have any impact on the UN peacekeeping role of those officers who have or still are serving in Rab. A leading human rights campaign group, the Human Rights Watch (HRW), has long been pushing the US and other Western countries for imposing sanctions against Rab and has also called on the UN to take similar actions.

Though ministers and politicians have blamed the so-called anti-Bangladeshi elements for the US actions, press reports about the meeting between the foreign secretary and the US ambassador after the latter was summoned at the ministry seems to suggest that Bangladesh's main disappointment was "the unilateral announcement instead of prior consultation." This is a flawed argument as, in October 2020, 10 leading senators in a show of bipartisan unity and urgency wrote to the then secretary of state to impose sanctions on Rab commanders. And again in August this year, the Congress caucus on human rights, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, also heard calls for actions against Rab during a public hearing.

Questioning the moral authority of the US or pointing out their dismal records at home against minority communities may be good for politicking, but lacks any practical solution. Claiming innocence or simple denial after years of allegations of gross human rights violations is not going to result in any exoneration. Therefore, setting up a truly independent and transparent investigation mechanism—perhaps a judicial commission—to probe into the alleged abuses should be considered with urgency. Eight years of negotiations and lobbying to end another exclusion, the suspension of GSP to Bangladesh over workers' rights, have yet to succeed.


Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist who writes from the UK. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1


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