The U.S. Should Coordinate With EU, Australia And UK To Sanction Bangladesh RAB And DGFI

Relatives in Dhaka hold pictures of missing persons in May last year, saying they have disappeared often after visiting various government offices including police and Rapid Action Battalion (Piyas Biswas via Getty Images)

The US imposed human rights-related sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its current and former officials, accusing them of involvement in hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings since 2009.

The sanctions mean the RAB will neither be allowed to own properties in the US nor engage in any financial transaction with a US body or personnel. The sanctions also ban seven current and former top officials of the RAB, including Benazir Ahmed, the inspector general of Bangladesh Police, from entering the US.

The US and UK received the same evidence regarding the Rapid Action Battalion’s alleged involvement in forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, but only the US decided to sanction the RAB.

Gross human rights violations

The US acted against RAB after several NGOs alleged that the police unit is responsible for “more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, torture” and also targeting of opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists under the garb of Bangladesh government’s war on drugs. The US government said that such allegations “threaten US 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”. The press statement particularly noted the May 2018 extrajudicial killing of Teknaf City Municipal councillor. 

Human rights groups accuse the RAB of involvement in extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances [File: Abir Abdullah/EPA]

The US government had first issued an executive order titled “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption” against RAB officials in 2017. The sanctions on Friday, also the International Human Rights Day, would not prevent or restrict access of these individuals to all properties and assets that they own in the US.

UK and EU must sanction Bangladesh RAB and DGFI

But the UK decided at the last minute to not implement sanctions that were to coincide with the restrictions by its closest ally. Qatar based Al Jazeera reported citing several sources who said they heard accounts of the plan being pulled at the eleventh hour.

UK barrister Toby Cadman, a member of the team that submitted requests for sanctions against the RAB to the US and UK governments, told Al Jazeera the fact the restrictions were not implemented came as a surprise for those involved.

“I filed the request for sanctions and whilst I am not in a position to discuss the substance, I can confirm that I discussed the request with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office [FCDO],” Cadman said, referring to the UK Foreign Office.

“Having worked on both the US and UK request for sanctions, I was strongly of the view that a coordinated response was necessary in the circumstances,” Cadman said. “Our filing in the UK targeted political officials and those in the security sector.”

“It was certainly my position that the UK would issue mirror sanctions in coordination with the US. I was extremely disappointed when they failed to do so.”

Cadman’s disappointment was shared by Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer at the Asian Human Rights Commission who provided the evidence of human rights abuses by the RAB attached to the sanctions requests to the US and the UK.

“The expectation was that the UK and US, being strong allies, that they would be collaborating with each other by announcing back-to-back sanctions. The US did that on the 10th of December, the UK didn’t,” Ashrafuzzaman said.

“That was very surprising to us.”

Cadman conceded that requests for sanctions, such as the one he and his team submitted, do not always come to fruition, but that there is usually a reason presented.

“It generally relates to a lack of an evidential basis and, of course, if there was something lacking it would be normal for the FCDO to seek further information or clarification,” Cadman said.

But he added in this case no clarifications or explanations were provided by the Foreign Office.

Ashrafuzzaman noted the documentation collected by his team was used by the US as justification for sanctions against the RAB.

“The evidence was sent to the US state department and treasury, it was used by the US. That evidence was sent to the UK as well.”

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