Tue, 26 Sep 2023

Recently, six US congressmen wrote a letter to President Biden, demanding 'appropriate' measures against the Bangladesh government ahead of the election. The congress members also requested urgent action to stop human rights abuses by prime minister Sheikh Hasina's government. The congressmen are from Republican Party and most of them are members of the Freedom Caucus- a hard right-wing caucus in the Congress. Exploring their backgrounds, political ideology, and activism suggests that they hardly have any concern over global human rights. Yet, the letter is an 'unusual' one for them to endorse and forward to the president. It is worth rethinking what motivated them to undertake activism against the Bangladesh government on Human Rights grounds.

By Erina Haque

What's in the letter?

In a bid to give Bangladesh 'the best chance for free and fair elections,' the Congress members have urged US President Biden for measures including stricter individual sanctions and banning its law enforcement and military personnel from participating in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Congress members also requested urgent action to stop human rights abuses by prime minister Sheikh Hasina's government. The US Congressmen alleged that religious minorities are also suffering in Bangladesh. How six congressmen endorsed such a false projection is still a surprising fact!

Congressman Scott Perry led the 'team' and signed the letter. Other congressmen are Bob Good, Barry Moore, Tim Burchett, Warren Davidson, and Keith Self. All six of them belong to the Republican Party. It is a bit unusual for hardliner Republican congressmen to do human rights research on Bangladesh and suddenly emerge as rights advocates while ignoring their domestic rights aspects and practicing conservatism in domestic politics.

Reasons behind this planned letter

On 24th May, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new visa policy for Bangladesh which received mixed responses from the country. It was unclear whether the policy was a promotion of peace or a pressure tool for Bangladesh. But now this letter makes it clear that the US is scheming based on the influence which is unusual to their political practice. It seems either geopolitical calculation or the opposition's lobby led them to endorse such a letter and send it to their President to create pressure on the Bangladesh government.

Amid Sino-US rivalry, Bangladesh has emerged as an important littoral for the Indo-Pacific Strategy. For a while now, the US expressed its desire for Bangladesh by its side against China. But Bangladesh is opting for maintaining a neutral stance. As Chinese investments increased rapidly in the last few years, the US tends to see Bangladesh as a 'China-leaning' country. As Bangladesh has become a crucial country for the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the letter could be a product of bipartisan consensus on the US foreign policy. The letter could serve as a pressure on the incumbent government. It is one explanation of why the congressmen undertook such an unusual endeavor.

On the other hand, it could be the product of Bangladesh's opposition parties lobbying in the USA. Lobbying is a legal persuasion process in the US, but it is considered illegal in many parts of the World including Bangladesh. According to the Politico report of 2018, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has hired two companies- Blue Star Strategies and Rasky Partners through a party member named Abdul Sattar to lobby in favor of the BNP ahead of parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.

The lobby issue came to the front once again after the US-sanctioned RAB and its seven members. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh said the BNP had hired four lobbyist firms until 2017 and another in 2019. According to him, BNP and Jamaat had hired eight lobbyist firms in the US in total. Of them, a firm named Peace and Justice was appointed for $132 thousand to influence the US government. Perhaps the lobby firms pursued the congressmen to move forward with the letter. The false projection regarding the minority population could have been wrong information fed by the lobbyists that the congressmen were unaware of owing to their least expertise on Bangladesh affairs.

What's wrong with their demand?

The six congressmen concluded their letter requesting President Joe Biden to ban "Bangladesh law enforcement and military personnel from participating in UN peacekeeping missions." This statement alone ruins the credibility of their letter and their demand. Bangladesh has a glorious history in UN peacekeeping missions. In the last 34 years, Bangladeshi peacekeepers have been working with reputation, love, achievement, and success in the service of world humanity.

It is worth mentioning that Bangladeshi peacekeepers have become role models for the people of war-torn regions. They are assigned to the United Nations and are making a significant contribution to the economy of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the most troops contributor in UN peacekeeping operations. Because of this, the proposal of banning Bangladesh from peacekeeping operations makes no sense at all. This also proves the fact that the letter is a product of a lobbyist firm trying to defame Bangladesh in the international arena.

The six US congressmen further said in the letter: "Sheikh Hasina's government has persecuted Bangladesh's minority Christian population burning and looting places of worship, jailing pastors, and breaking up families when a religious conversion occurs." One interesting observation regarding the letter is that it mentioned, 'Since Sheikh Hasina's rise to power, the Hindu population has been halved', which is not true at all. Minority leaders in Bangladesh have already condemned this information.

Bangladesh appreciates that the international community, including the United States, stands firmly behind the Prime Minister's sustained commitment to ensure free and fair elections. But this type of letter is still unacceptable, especially from congressmen who are powerful in international policy making. This also threatens the business and economy for small countries as image plays a large role for regional activities. Bans and sanctions from powerful countries like the US now became a pressure tool for small countries. Even though their demands are wrong, all we can do is criticize their actions.

Response from Bangladesh

Bangladesh's government has decided to reach out to all six US congressmen who penned the letter to President Joe Biden projecting a false and influenced picture of Bangladesh. Bangladesh Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shahariar Alam said there is a significant gap in the information, and they will respond to issues raised in the letter He said. "We have received the letter. We will reach out to all these members and not only to them but also to all those who are interested in this, we will update them regularly about the issues covered in the letter".

The US-Bangladesh relationship has many facets. The interests of both parties form the basis of the partnership. The significance of Bangladesh is similarly recognized by the United States. The relationship spans 52 years and the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and the United States has grown significantly. After all these years of togetherness, this type of false allegations will only deteriorate the US-BD relationship. It is hoped that the congressmen's true intention will come to light so that it cannot damage our decade-long relations.

Erina Haque is Bangladesh affairs, Sino-Indo-Pak affairs, Myanmar, and Rohingya refugee affairs, an Afghan refugee affairs researcher, and a freelance writer.

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