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Bangladesh wants recognition for genocide: Washington is losing its cool.

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

The recent announcement by the US regarding Bangladesh's parliamentary elections reveals the inconsistencies of the US foreign policy in South Asia. Chris Blackburn explains.

Thousands of men were indiscriminately killed, tortured and arrested during the 1971 genocide.

Source: Muktijuddho e-Archive Trust Photographer: S M Shafi

There is an elephant in the room that needs addressing, US foreign policy concerning Bangladesh has led to everyone scratching their heads. Currently, it’s neither logical nor nuanced, fair or balanced. Washington is openly bullying Dhaka. In May, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken announced the US will sanction Bangladeshi figures they believe to be involved in vote rigging and standing in the way of free and fair elections. A noble move if genuine, but it looks very hollow as Pakistan was invited to Washington’s The Summit for Democracy instead of Bangladesh in March. A farce considering Pakistan isn't a functioning democracy. There are no sanctions on the horizon for Pakistan.

It’s not the first time the US has fired warning shots at Bangladesh instead of getting real with Pakistan. The US State Department isn’t winning friends at the minute. If we compare US policies between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. There doesn’t appear to be any logic or consistency. Certainly no real regional strategy. Is there even a Biden Doctrine?

It’s hard to gauge if this is all linked back to 1971 or the sloppy 2021 sanctions on Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Washington and Dhaka are locked in a very heated spat. There is no denying it. Dhaka is growing in confidence on the world stage, but it’s picked the wrong battle in trying to teach Washington the errors of its ways. Nobody likes to be called a hypocrite, especially Americans.

Washington indirectly helped to commit a genocide in Bangladesh by standing by Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh won’t let it forget it. This current spat won’t help heal those rifts. Meditation is in order. The UK and India are the most likely to play peacemakers. I can imagine that both countries are not relishing the task. Bangladesh wants the US to recognise the genocide of 1971. The USA is the key to global recognition for Dhaka, but Washington is going to resist. Last year, Blinken officially acknowledged Archer K. Blood’s role in standing up to Nixon and Kissinger. Blood, the USA’s top diplomat in Dhaka during the Liberation war, called the actions of Pakistan a “genocide.” Many thought this was a signal that Washington was going to finally acknowledge crimes against humanity. Atonement for the USA’s role in 1971. Washington is now in a dangerous tailspin.

The scattergun sanctions on RAB took everyone by surprise. It came a month after the fall of Kabul. A time when most human rights activists in South Asia, Europe and North America were calling for #SanctionPakistan. RAB is a SWAT-style paramilitary force that was created to go after terrorists and violent offenders in Bangladesh. The USA and other nations helped to set it up and train it. A few bad apples in RAB coupled with a few sloppy al-Jazeera exposes set it up as a target for human rights activists in Washington. The allegations that RAB was being used to tackle political opponents of the Government of Bangladesh should have been properly investigated. Instead the US launched sanctions. If RAB was being used as death squad, those at the top of Bangladesh’s government should have been targetted for Magnitsky style sanctions.

But it’s not the first time that Bangladesh has had to deal with US foreign policy inconsistency and poor intelligence. In 2015, Bangladesh authorities caught Pakistani diplomats providing help to al-Qaeda linked groups in Bangladesh. Rather than stand shoulder to shoulder with Dhaka. The US chastised Dhaka for not providing enough protection for the gay bloggers, secularists, and human rights activists that were being murdered with the aid of the Pakistani diplomats. Something is severely wrong with US policy and intelligence gathering in Bangladesh. It’s worrying India and other neighbours too.

In the current spat between Washington and Dhaka, foreign policy analysts are torn over the root cause. Some think it’s really about Dhaka’s close relationship with China, while others believe it’s due to Sheikh Hasina’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some have even posed to me that's its indirectly aimed at India. It could be a mixture. But Bangladesh has won plaudits around the world for sustaining economic growth, advancing human development and tackling Islamist terrorism head-on. In sharp contrast to Pakistan’s woeful record.

Pakistan is a nation that funds terrorism and has directly been implicated in terrorist attacks on US servicemen and diplomats in Afghanistan. It’s also claimed to be, “iron-clad brothers” with China. There were no RAB-style sanctions on Pakistani figures involved in attacks on Americans throughout the 20-year US-led Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Pakistan’s support for the Taliban led to the US-led effort in Afghanistan falling apart. A humiliation that is still not recognised or acknowledged in Washington DC. Pakistan is not a model the US should be supporting. Bangladesh should be that model. So what is the problem?

Is the US really concerned about democracy in the region or that Bangladesh has been twisting its arm on recognising the genocide of 1971? I think things will become clearer over the next few months. Bangladesh wants recognition for the horrors of 1971. If former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan can demand it too, it’s high time Washington stops being a human rights poser and does the right thing. A few corrupt officers in RAB that have overstepped their authority and have been killing for sport doesn’t compare to the systematic slaughter of 3 million Bengalis and the rape of over 400,000 women. Washington has to choose which is the biggest issue for its future relationship with Bangladesh and the region. It can’t be selective any more. Bangladesh is testing the USA. Many are hoping it wins.


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