Colombo, December 15: Last week the US sanctioned, for alleged human rights violations, a number of individuals and entities in several countries that are not its allies. Among these were individuals from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

While the two Sri Lankans sanctioned were low-level military personnel (naval Lieutenant Commander Chandana Hettiarachchi and army Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake), the Bangladeshis sanctioned were of high rank and their number was also much higher.

Those sanctioned in Bangladesh were: the current Inspector-General of Police and a former Director-General of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) Benazir Ahmed; the current RAB Director-General Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun; ADG (Operations) Khan Mohammad Azad; former ADG (Operations) Tofayel Mustafa Sorwar; Mohammad Jahangir Alam; and Mohammad Anwar Latif Khan. A former RAB Lieutenant Colonel, Miftah Uddin Ahmed, was also sanctioned. The sanctioned individuals and their immediate family have been barred from travelling to the US.

The State Department said that the sanction on the Bangladeshis was  imposed on the basis of NGOs’ submissions that more than 600 disappearances had taken place since 2019 and nearly 600 extrajudicial killings had taken place since 2019 . RAB had been dubbed by Human Rights Watch as a “death squad” which ought to be disbanded.

The sanctioned Sri Lankans, Lt.Commander Hettiarachchi and Sergeant Ratnayake, were arrested and put on trial. Ratnayake was sentenced to death and later pardoned. But in the case of the Bangladeshis, no cases had been registered. The US had sanctioned these Bangladeshis only the basis of allegations of NGOs without hearing the other side or conducting independent investigations.

The people and government of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh reacted to these sanctions differently. The Sri Lankans took the sanctions in their stride firstly because the two men had cases against them; secondly because they had got used to the sanctioning of their military personnel by the US since the war ended in 2009 and thirdly because  sanctions had not resulted in changes in Sri Lanka’s policies. Colombo’s  ideas or policies on human rights have not changed as a consequence of sanctions so far. The existing policies have the tacit and explicit approval of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. These policies are considered necessary for the survival of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist country.

On the contrary, the Bangladesh government was incensed. For the first time, its top uniformed personnel had been sanctioned by the US. As many as seven senior officers had been hit, and the institution targeted was the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) that had successfully spearheaded the hunt for drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists who were ruining the people and the economy of the country.

The US action had also struck at the legitimacy of the Sheikh Hasina government. Hasina’s political clout is based on her merciless action against drug peddlers, drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists. Dhaka felt that the US action was a move to discredit the government in a critical area of governance and destabilize Bangladesh, that is just about emerging from being a basket case to becoming South Asia’s economic tiger.

Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen felt constrained to summon the US Ambassador Earl Miller and deliver a protest. Momen “regretted that the US decided to undermine an agency of the government that had been on the forefront of combating terrorism, drug trafficking and other heinous transnational crimes that were considered to be shared priorities with successive US administrations,” the Bangladesh foreign ministry said in a statement.

Bias Against Bangladesh

Arvind Virmani of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been quoted as saying that he had experienced “first hand” US Government and US Congress bias against Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League. A Colombo-based diplomat commented that the US is still carrying the baggage of 1971, when it was forced to accept the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country from Pakistan, its ally. Furthermore, the Bangladesh independence movement was spearheaded by Shiekh Hasina’s party, the Awami League.

China Factor

Derek Grossman, national security and Indo-Pacific analyst at RAND Corporation justified the sanctions but added that the US action was “in the context of strategic competition against China.”  Michael Kugelman, South Asia Senior Associate at the Wilson Center, also said that the Biden administration has not been happy about Dhaka’s growing ties with China.

In a bid to counter growing Chinese influence in this region, the US has been wanting Bangladesh to join the ‘QUAD’ alliance now comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India. While Bangladesh is friendly to all these countries individually, it is against joining any security alliance with a military undertone and aimed at China, albeit unofficially.

Futility of Sanctions    

But the sanctions against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are bound to be a damp squib. If they have any effect at all, it will be to push these countries further towards China.

In a piece in Foreign Affairs (Sept-Oct 2021) entitled: The United States of Sanctions: The Use and Abuse of Economic Coercion Daniel W. Drezner says that for the US, sanctions have become the “go-to solution for nearly every foreign policy problem”. He points out that during President Barack Obama’s first term, the US designated an average of 500 entities for sanctions per year for reasons ranging from human rights abuses to nuclear proliferation to violations of territorial sovereignty. That figure nearly doubled over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency. President Joe Biden imposed new sanctions against Myanmar (for its coup), Nicaragua (for its crackdown), and Russia (for its hacking).

Drezner says that while economic sanctions have hampered the targeted countries, they have not broken them. But this is not grasped by the US leadership. A 2019 Government Accountability Office study concluded that not even the federal government knew if sanctions were working.

According to Drezner: “The truth is that Washington’s fixation with sanctions has little to do with their efficacy and everything to do with something else: American decline. No longer an unchallenged superpower, the United States can’t throw its weight around the way it used to. In relative terms, its military power and diplomatic influence have declined. Two decades of war, recession, polarization, and now a pandemic, have dented American power. Frustrated US presidents are left with fewer arrows in their quiver, and they are quick to reach for the easy, available tool of sanctions.”

He further pointed out that sanctions hurt the US too, and the US is oblivious to this. “They strain relations with allies, antagonize adversaries, and impose economic hardship on innocent civilians. Thus, sanctions not only reveal American decline but accelerate it too. To make matters worse, the tool is growing duller by the year. Future sanctions are likely to be even less effective as China and Russia happily swoop in to rescue targeted actors and as US allies and partners tire of the repeated application of economic pressure. Together, these developments will render the US dollar less central to global finance, reducing the effect of sanctions that rely on that dominance.”

Bad Timing

In the case of Bangladesh, the US sanctions have come at the wrong time. The country is currently celebrating its 50 th. year of its hard-won independence. It was on December 16, 1971 that East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh. A huge celebration is planned to mark the golden jubilee. It was a diplomatic blunder to impose sanctions aimed at knocking out the political foundation of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League regime, which got Bangladesh independence.

Post-sanctions, Dhaka will be even less inclined to follow US advice to abjure China and join its camp instead. Both Grossman and Kugelman expressed doubts about the efficacy of the sanctions. According to them the prospect of Dhaka’s loosening ties with Beijing or improving its rights record look remote. Sheikh Hasina is also unlikely to give up on her strong arm methods to contain violent detractors and disruptive elements.

But the US will carry on with its sanctions regardless. Drezner says: “U.S. policymakers have become so sanctions-happy that they have blinded themselves to the long-term costs of this tool. To compete with the other great powers, the United States needs to remind the world that it is more than a one-trick pony.”



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