The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on December 10, 2021, that is International Human Rights Day, revealed that the US has imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab), a special security force unit of Bangladesh. A number of individuals and entities across the globe who perpetrated or had a connection to human rights violations were also included in the US “sanction” list. The justification apparently lies in the US’ strenuous efforts to encourage the accountability for human rights violations and prevent abuse worldwide. In the same press release, the complementary role of countries like the UK in taking initiatives with similar intentions was highlighted, especially in the context of human rights abuse in Burma.
UK, however, did not impose sanction on Rab for reasons whatsoever, according to a report by Al Jazeera. Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer at the Asian Human Rights Commission, was quoted in the report as saying, “The expectation was that the UK and US, being strong allies, 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.”
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By referring to Toby Cadman, who was Jamaat’s legal advisor, the Al Jazeera report stated that the governments do not impose sanctions when there are no strong evidential basis. Cadman expressed his surprise that the UK did not seek any further clarifications or information regarding the evidence. Ashrafuzzaman further added that the same evidence on which the US relied to impose sanctions was sent to the UK.
In line with the report published by Al Jazeera, Chris Bryant, a Labour party legislator, questioned the last-minute stepping back of the UK during one of the sessions in the UK Parliament. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that during the “Briefing on the Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh” at the European Parliament in Brussels, Tasneem Khalil, editor-in-chief of Netra News, invited the EU to impose sanctions as the US did. In so doing, Khalil contended that the US sanction somehow led to “positive changes” in the country.
During the Cold War period, the United Nations Security Council imposed only two sanctions. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, sanctions were imposed on a number of countries. For this reason, George Lopez termed that as the “Sanctions Decade”. The declared objectives of sanctions include the prevention of any aggression by any state, restoration of democracy, protection of human rights, counter-terrorism, disarmament, bringing peace to the warring states, etc.
One writer puts forward, “Sanctions are the political tools that stand between diplomacy and guns, the midway between negotiations and soldiers.” Recognizing this, the UNGA Resolution No 2131 of1965 i.e. Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty states in article 1 that “[n]o State has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any State”.
The desired goals of sanctions could be very assuasive, but the hidden and, arguably, true goals are achieving geopolitical interests. Joseph E Stiglitz, who received a Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, said, “The United States appears to have entered a new cold war with both China and Russia. And US leaders’ portrayal of the confrontation as one between democracy and authoritarianism fails the smell test, especially at a time when the same leaders are actively courting a systematic human rights abuser like Saudi Arabia. Such hypocrisy suggests that it is at least partly global hegemony, not values, that is really at stake.” Depending on the geopolitical interests, the United States overlooks the lack of democracy and violations of human rights in some countries and overemphasizes such violations or propaganda thereof in other countries. We should remember that a half-truth is more dangerous than a falsity.
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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in a press conference held on October 6, 2022, that the Rab was established in 2004 on the advice of the United States and was also trained in the same country. In this regard, she also questioned if the United States was unhappy with the anti-terrorist initiatives undertaken by the Rab.
We need to remind ourselves that the law enforcement mechanisms in this country have roots in the colonial period. During that time, repressive policing was a part of the colonial governance system. David Arnold, a historian, in one of his essays stated that the modern police system developed in Britain in tandem with the development of capitalism. The police system, however, did not treat British citizens with violent behavior. Quite the contrary, the British colonial rulers in Ireland or South Asia allowed the police to be violent. Although the responsibility for continuing this colonial system lies in us, western countries still encourage us to have a police system imbued with colonialism. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina indicates the same in her statement. The West does not apply the human rights principles equally, especially when they foster one system for US citizens and another for foreigners. The human rights violations of US soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison, or Guantanamo Bay detention center are concrete examples of this hypocrisy.
There is no evidence as such that imposed sanctions have ever come to fruition. For example, even with more than sixty years of sanctions on Cuba, the United States has not achieved its desired goals. Cuba surpasses even the wealthiest nation in terms of education and medical care. Additionally, in the first decade of this century, western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom imposed sanctions against land reform in Zimbabwe. In this case, the sanction also did not succeed in attaining its desired goal even when there were allegations that the Zimbabwean government was destroying democratic institutions.
The writer is former Chairman, National Human Rights Commission.