Human Rights Day is observed annually on December 10, which marks the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. That declaration enumerates the fundamental human rights of freedoms of expression, religion or belief, association, and peaceful assembly, and the right to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy.
On International Human Rights Day, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated 15 individuals and 10 entities for their connection to human rights abuse and repression in several countries around the globe, pursuant to multiple sanctions authorities.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh was designated pursuant to (U.S. President’s) Executive Order (E.O.) 13818 for being a foreign entity that is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse. In its press release, the U.S. Treasury stated that widespread allegations against the RAB “threaten U.S. national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh” and that these actions were taken pursuant to E.O. 13818, “which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and targets perpetrators of corruption and serious human rights abuse.” Six high ranking officials of the RAB were also designated as perpetrators who engaged in serious human rights abuse relating to their tenure.
It is worth noting that the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act is a bipartisan bill, passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2012, intending to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009. Since 2016, the bill, which applies globally, authorizes the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S. In 2015 and 2019, Canada and the European Union, respectively, passed similar Magnitsky laws to impose sanctions including freezing assets on those involved in the worst human rights abuses around the world and to bring justice for victims of corrupt foreign officials.
Building upon the Magnitsky Act, E.O. 13818 was issued on December 20, 2017, in recognition that the prevalence of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States, had reached such scope and gravity as to threaten the stability of international political and economic systems. Human rights abuse and corruption undermine the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; have devastating impacts on individuals; weaken democratic institutions; degrade the rule of law; perpetuate violent conflicts; facilitate the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets.
This E.O. allows the United States to impose tangible and significant consequences on those who commit serious human rights abuse or engage in corruption, as well as to protect the financial system of the United States from abuse by these same persons. Measures can include inter alia restrictions on property and interests in property of designated entities and individuals: “All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn…” (Section 1)
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center assisted OFAC in identifying perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption.
“On International Human Rights Day, Treasury is using its tools to expose and hold accountable perpetrators of serious human rights abuse,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo. “Our actions today, particularly those in partnership with the United Kingdom and Canada, send a message that democracies around the world will act against those who abuse the power of the state to inflict suffering and repression.”
Initially, Bangladesh government ministers tried to depreciate the sanction imposed against the RAB. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina criticized that she could not understand why the US, which is highly vocal about democracy, voting rights and human rights, is giving shelter to a self-proclaimed Bangabandhu killer. "It's surprising that we have to take lessons from them on the rule of law, democracy and justice," she said.
Lately, however, Bangladesh has toned down its rhetoric and has asked the U.S. to reconsider its sanctions against the RAB and its black-listed officers. "We are surprised by the move. We think there is scope for reexamination against the allegations," Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen wrote in a letter to his U.S. counterpart Antony J Blinken. As Bangladesh and the USA prepare to celebrate the 50 anniversary of relationship next year, the foreign minister said, he would like to surmount all stumbling blocks standing in the way with mutual trust and confidence in order for ushering in a new chapter of cooperation and partnership.
Dr. Momen’s letter is a good start. However, it is always better to admit a problem when it truly exists and then to fix it with solutions that prevent its recurrence. The denial of facts is delusional, if not stupid or suicidal.
While the U.S. records on human rights and its democracy are not perfect either, no one should try to devalue the importance of certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all human beings.
However, under the authoritarian impulse, hungry for power and the insatiable desire to remain there forever at any cost, many governments around the globe today are moving away from democracy. A recent report, from the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, noted that more than half of all democracies have experienced a decline in at least one aspect of their democracy over the last 10 years, including the United States.
Freedom House reports, in 2020, that it marked the 15th consecutive year of global freedom in retreat. [Note: USA’s score slid down from 86 (2021) to 83 (2020) out of 100.]
Bangladesh has not fared well either. It scored only 39 out of 100 (in the years 2020 and 2021), getting a paltry score of 15 out of 40 in political rights, and 24 out of 60 in civil rights. Its status remains partly free. As for internet freedom, the score is equally bad: 40 out of 100, which is, in fact, two points lower than the score it received the year before. Extra-legal intimidation or physical violence by those affiliated with the ruling party continues to be a big problem. According to the Freedom House, “Corruption is a serious problem, and anticorruption efforts have been weakened by politicized enforcement. Due process guarantees are poorly upheld and security forces carry out a range of human right abuses with near impunity.”
Such an observation about Bangladesh should not surprise any serious observer. As I have also noted in my recently published book – Bangladesh: a polarized or divided nation? – a multi-pronged approach that is both sincere and genuine needs to be chalked out to weed out the twin evils of crime and corruption that go hand in hand to empower and prolong the authoritarian tendonitis within those in power. These all-encompassing vices are at the root of the winner-takes-all attitude that are signature statements of hybrid and illiberal democracies.
There was an old adage – the politics of Bengal, in reality, is the economics of Bengal. Millions of people died of starvation during British rule for its faulty and criminal policies. Successful leaders of Bangladesh have, thus, worked hard to satisfy the economic needs of the people (ensuring at least two-course meals). Today, no one dies of hunger in Bangladesh, which has proven many pundits wrong by defying the odds in this country of some 165 million people!
Under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has an impressive track record of growth and poverty reduction. It has been among the fastest growing economies in the world over the past decade. Its economy is the 33rd largest in the world in nominal terms, and 31st largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). It is classified among the Next Eleven emerging market middle income economies and a frontier market. Last year, its GDP surpassed a trillion USD in PPP terms. Despite the Covid, its GDP growth rate is expected to increase to 6.6% in the fiscal year ending June 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But, at what cost?
Many in opposition argue that such economic miracles have happened at the growing perils to democracy. Is that truly desirable? Or, is it sustainable? I don’t think so. As much as people crave for economic prosperity they also want their fundamental rights to be respected and protected, and surely not either abused or violated. These desires are not unique to a certain group of people, but are universal.
The latest sanctions against the RAB that has had some successes against terrorism and drug-trafficking should be a sufficient wakeup call for Bangladesh to own and fix its problem. The Magnitsky Act can bite hard many corrupt politicians and government officials that have foreign assets.
For years, the Bangladeshi expatriates who have earned the respect in western world for their work ethics, ingenuity, intellectual prowess, brilliance and honesty have witnessed how their vulnerable family properties and family members have become easy preys to criminal land-grabbing syndicates who have the deep pockets and long arms to buy influence within the government offices, corrupting everyone from a desk clerk to an officer to a politician in power.
If the Government of Bangladesh is truly serious about throttling the impact of the Magnitsky sanction, it must be capable of self-correction and self-improvement. It must ensure that the expatriate community living overseas are their goodwill ambassadors and not their adversaries. The excesses committed by the rogue members within various government sectors, most notably the black-listed RAB, ought to be stopped immediately and corrective measures taken so that human rights of all the citizens are honored and protected. Bangladesh must improve transparency, hold corrupt actors accountable, reduce their ability to use the international financial systems to hide assets and to launder money.
Well, human rights and democracy are the bedrocks that define the Biden doctrine. Bangladesh can choose to either respect it or ignore it. It can make everyone a winner by strengthening our own democracies and pushing back on authoritarianism, improving governance, fighting corruption, promoting and protecting human rights of people at home and everywhere.
Inaction is not an option if Bangladesh is mindful of the Magnitsky Act.