Don’t take US sanctions personally, Bangladesh

The US sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion are about US law, not politics or influence

I’ve got bad news for you, Bangladesh.

New Delhi can’t help Dhaka lift the US sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). As nice as it is that the foreign ministers want to work together, New Delhi is not the right messenger.

The combative way New Delhi asserted its position on Russia didn’t make sense to most Americans. That put an end to the honeymoon US president Biden and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi enjoyed. 

Now, to be sure, New Delhi speaking up for Dhaka won’t hurt. But it won’t help, either. New Delhi is just not well-placed to communicate Dhaka’s interests in Washington DC. 

But there is a simpler reason New Delhi can’t help Dhaka. The simpler reason is that there isn’t an ambassador, emissary, or lobbyist who can. What’s done is done. 

The law that bound the US government to sanction the RAB is popular. 

The Global Magnitsky Act enjoys bipartisan support in the US. Elected representatives expanded it twice in the last 10 years. Their counterparts in Canada, the UK, the EU, and most recently, Australia, have passed similar legislation. A handful of countries will likely pass their own versions soon. 

It’s becoming a global norm. Part of a larger, long-term trend towards extra-territorial legislation. 

Dhaka appears to have read this accurately, and to its credit, reined in the RAB, and initiated the kind of dialogue with US representatives that will put the countries on-the-level. 

But that read has been misinterpreted by analysts who read tea leaves, exploring vague ideas like power and influence, or geo-politics and grand strategy, instead of visiting a US Treasury Department’s website, and reading Magnitsky Act legislation for themselves. 

When the Biden administration ordered sanctions against the RAB, and seven of its current and former personnel, it completed a process that began before Biden was president.

Under the Magnitsky Act, several US State Department bureaus, and four congressional committees, are responsible for identifying foreign government officials who have violated the law.

They send their shortlist, and supporting evidence, to the executive office, which then delegates sanction determinations to the Secretary of Treasury, who consults with the secretary of state, and attorney general. These cabinet members decide who the government will sanction. 

The Treasury Department, which is responsible for economic sanctions, then announces sanction determinations in a press statement, while the State Department, which is responsible for visa sanctions, details those determinations to Congress on or before Human Rights Day, every year.

What was the end result for Bangladesh?

RAB won’t receive defense assistance from the US. US aid to Bangladesh won’t stop. US aid to Bangladesh’s armed forces won’t stop either. Just any aid to RAB. 

Six former members and one current member of RAB cannot travel, bank, or do business in the US. Not every Bangladeshi. Not every member of the armed services. Just seven people.

RAB, and those seven personnel, join 189 entities and 148 individuals from across the world that have met the same verdict in years past. They all have recourse. 

Those sanctioned, or their representatives, can submit reporting proving they did not engage in the activity that caused sanction, or their government prosecuted them for the activity that caused sanction. 

They can also try to convince the Biden administration that it is within the US national security interest to lift the sanctions. This option appears most negotiable. 

The rub is that US security interests in Bangladesh are comparatively limited. Limited to helping the armed forces achieve a minimum credible defense, and participate in UN peacekeeping missions.

Lifting the sanctions on RAB, or the seven personnel, do not appear to serve either interest. Particularly as US defense cooperation focuses on when, why, and how states use force. 

That is the exact concern that led the US to sanctions. 

And it’s a concern reflected in just about every defense agreement the US government enters. Something US representatives raise when discussing defense cooperation with any country. 

So, why not get the conversation about the use-of-force out of the way? 

Dhaka appears ready. It has raised the matter in multiple bilateral forums, appointed a US-based lobbying firm, and asked for diplomatic support from its long-term partner India. 

None of that is likely to help get the sanctions reversed. 

But it will put Dhaka in a better position to negotiate the next US-Bangladesh defense agreement, which, hopefully, will contribute to a more sustainable bilateral relationship in the years to come. 

Adam Pitman is an American writer and analyst in South Asia.