Press Conference at the American Recreation Club

Press Conference
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
March 22, 2011

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here this evening. I want to say first how glad I am to be back in Bangladesh as you prepare to celebrate your 40th anniversary of independence later this week. Although I have the opportunity to meet frequently with Bangladeshi visitors to Washington, it has been two years since I last visited. Fortunately, many other senior U.S. Government officials have had the opportunity to visit Dhaka in that period. They and I appreciate the hospitality and friendship of the Bangladeshi people.

I’ve had a busy and rewarding four days in Bangladesh. I had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and members of her government, including the Foreign Minister and the Finance Minister. I paid a call on BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia. And I met with Professor Mohammad Yunus and other prominent members of civil society.

Yesterday I was able to travel to Jessore, where I received a helpful briefing on issues of border security and immigration. And I had an opportunity to visit a U.S. Government-supported shelter that works to rehabilitate female victims of trafficking, and learn more about the challenges they face. I also visited our American Corner in Jessore and spent an hour sharing views with about 30 students and their teachers. I appreciate the hospitality extended by the mayor of Jessore and all those whom I met.

Throughout my visit, I have been reminded once again of the strong progress Bangladesh has made across a variety of fronts: economic development, counter terrorism, and regional partnership. Bangladesh plays an important role in furthering peace and stability, both within its borders and across the region. Bangladesh is the number one contributor to UN peacekeeping efforts. BRAC and other civil society groups are playing a significant role in Afghanistan. And Bangladesh recently sent a crack team of cholera experts to Haiti to lend your expertise and assistance to that troubled nation.

In addition to these efforts, Bangladesh is one of a select few countries in the world that is partnering with the United States on the four Presidential initiatives: global health, food security, global climate change, and engagement with Muslim communities. Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in advancing toward its Millennium Development Goals, especially in maternal and child health. The U.S. Government, through our development agency USAID, will be working with the Government of Bangladesh to craft innovative and country-driven initiatives that will improve the lives of all Bangladeshis.

But it’s no secret that many friends of Bangladesh have also been greatly concerned in recent months by efforts to remove Professor Yunus as managing director of Grameen Bank. Professor Yunus is a Nobel Prize Winner and recipient of both the American Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. His work over the past decades to lift millions of women out of poverty is internationally recognized. He has brought great honor to Bangladesh, and we in the United States have been deeply troubled by the difficulties he is currently facing. As a friend and partner of Bangladesh, we are concerned about the dampening effect this will have on civil society in general and on the integrity and effectiveness of Grameen Bank in particular. And we see it as a distraction and an unnecessary departure from all the great work being done in Bangladesh. We remain hopeful that a compromise solution can be reached to the satisfaction of all parties.

Before concluding, I want to thank Ambassador Moriarty and his great team here in Dhaka for their superb efforts to advance our relations.

QUESTION: Just after your arrival, on 20th March, you talked to us that you are still hopeful that there is room for compromise, and if the compromise is accomplished, then you can further proceed the bilateral relationship that is in progress. But immediately after that, our Finance Minister briefed the press men that a compromise will not be done if and unless Professor Yunus withdraw the case. So, in the backdrop of this situation, do you still believe that, that a compromise is achieved? If not, whether it will put any strain on our bilateral ties.

And my second question is that, since second March, immediately after Dr. Yunus removed from the post--

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, let me answer the first question first. Again, we’re very hopeful that a compromise can be reached to the satisfaction of all parties, and a solution can be found that will ensure the effectiveness and the integrity of Grameen Bank. I do believe that a compromise is still possible and we are encouraging dialogue between all the relevant parties to achieve that.

QUESTION: The second part of my question, since March, there is a perception among the people that the way you responded to the question, that is purely meddling in the affair of a sovereign country. So what is your reaction to this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, this is a matter that has received widespread attention in the United States. And both professor Yunus and Grameen Bank enjoy a very positive reputation in the United States and have many admirers both among the many members in Congress that form the Bangladeshi Caucus, but also by President Obama and Secretary Clinton. So, this is a matter of great interest to the United States. And it’s of interest also because we hope that this development with Grameen Bank is not going to foreshadow wider actions against civil society in Bangladesh.

QUESTION: I just [want to] follow up with my colleague whether there is no compromise, as the government is very categorical about the high court decision, and we have heard that Secretary Clinton was supposed to come to Dhaka in April from Delhi, and she stopped coming because of this development. And our Prime Minister, she also was going to visit USA to attend a Muslim congregation conference, and at that time she was supposed to calling on President Obama. There are reports that both the engagements has cancelled because of this development. What do you think?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I don’t want to speculate about future action that will be taken, but of there is no compromise, I think it will have an effect on our bilateral relations, because part of the growth in our bilateral relations and in our assistance programs has been because of the restoration of democracy here in Bangladesh, as a result of the elections in 2008, and the progress that has been made to maintain a free and open civil society. So if there are steps that are taken that undermine civil society, I think that will have an effect on our relations.

QUESTION: You said that you are still hopeful of a compromise. My question is, do you have any formula for the compromise, and if you have, could you share with us?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, it’s really not for the United States to prescribe any formula for a compromise. Again, we hope that that can be found through dialogue between professor Yunus and Grameen Bank, and the government of Bangladesh.

QUESTION: [question inaudible to start] you have said the dismissal of Dr. Yunus is an unnecessary distraction. [inaudible] on the basis of a rule. So why have you [inaudible]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I don’t want to get into the details and the technicalities here. I think there’s a sense on the part of many people in the international community that this has not been handled in a way that is going to assure the integrity and effectiveness of Grameen Bank. We support a solution that will be acceptable to all sides and that will be to the satisfaction of all parties.

QUESTION: For the second time Bangladesh has been put in the Tier Two watch list in the human trafficking report in the United States. So do you think there is any progress in this sector of Bangladesh?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for that question. When you say that Bangladesh has been put on the Tier Two watch list, in fact we’ll be making another report probably in May or June of this year, so it’s a little bit early to say what the final decision will be. But this is a matter that is extremely important to the United States, not only in Bangladesh but around the world. This is a very important priority that we follow in many, many countries including your own. With respect to the situation in Bangladesh, I was very pleased to have the opportunity yesterday to visit a shelter near Jessore that is helping to rehabilitate women who have been the victims of trafficking. I was so impressed to hear the efforts they are making. I think that’s a testament to many NGOs here who are doing important work. The government also is committed to stopping trafficking and also stopping the exploitation of migrant workers. You have in the neighborhood of six million migrant workers who are working in various parts of the world, mostly in the Middle East, so it’s very important that your government take strong action to protect their interests and make sure they’re not exploited. And your government has been working hard on a new law that will not only affirm the important steps that have been taken against sex trafficking but will also address in a more comprehensive manner the rights, of how to protect the rights of migrant workers. The passage of that law would be a very strong signal that we would very much support, and I think would make a great deal of difference in the future adjudication and decision about the placement of Bangladesh on either Tier Two or Tier Two watch list.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We had a meeting today that brought together several ambassadors from around the region to discuss our counter terrorism cooperation. This is an annual meeting that we hold and so it was the turn of our embassy in Dhaka to host it this year. And this reflects the great importance we attach to counter terrorism cooperation with all our friends in South Asia. Sorry, what was your second question?

QUESTION: When will you allow duty free access?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, we already allow considerable access for Bangladeshi exports. I think your exports are up 30% this year. You can be very proud of the record your exporters have achieved.

QUESTION: [inaudible] and at that time you had expectations about the development of politics, governance, human rights, etc. You are again here after two years. Do you think all the issues are on the right track?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I think there’s been progress in many areas, but I’ve also, already underlined some of the areas where I think there can be further progress. And certainly one of them is in the area of, concerning Grameen Bank. We’re still following very closely the situation regarding civil society here. There’s more room for progress in areas such as corruption, which remains a very significant issue and one that I think hampers your government in its efforts to attract foreign investment. There’s been progress in some areas but still progress to be made in others.

QUESTION: Good to see you again. I had an opportunity to interview you last October.


QUESTION: In DC. My question is, you told me we’ll see a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in near future, possibly within this year. How hopeful you are about that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, nothing is scheduled by the Secretary at this stage. I think a successful resolution of the Yunus case along the lines that I talked about would help a great deal, helping me to make the case to Secretary Clinton that she should make a visit to Bangladesh.

QUESTION: My question to you, we see you are so vocal regarding Dr. Yunus, but why you are silent regarding the gross violation of human rights in Bangladesh?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I’d say that the situation involving human rights in Bangladesh is a continuing interest to the United States. It’s something that we have a very good dialogue with your government about and that we attach a great deal of importance to. And we have expressed concerns in the past and continue to have concerns about some of the violations that are being committed by your security forces. And, again, we will continue to talk to your government about that and express our hope that these can be addressed.

QUESTION: [inaudible] did you get positive characterization from Prime Minister?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I will let the Prime Minister characterize her own position on this. It’s not for me to talk about what the Prime Minister said. I’m happy to tell you about America’s position on things.

QUESTION: I’ve got three short questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: If you could do it one at a time.

QUESTION: Following on my colleague from Amar Desh, what is unclear to me is why America is investing so much in Muhammad Yunus in terms of risking its bilateral relations when, as everyone is aware, there are so many other issues that are, many people consider to be as important if not far more important. So I wonder if you can just clarify why is the Muhammad Yunus issue so significant to the United States compared to the many other issues of human rights violations that you had mentioned?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all I would say that it’s more you, the members of the press, who have made this such an important issue. I mean, when that’s really the only thing you ever ask me about. So of course that emerges as the most important priority. As my opening statement showed, we have many significant areas of cooperation with the government of Bangladesh, and this is one of several issues, and it’s more all of you who have made this kind of the preeminent point of discussion during my visit here. But I’ve had the occasion to talk about many, many other aspects of our cooperation with the government.

QUESTION: A couple months ago, one of your colleagues, Ambassador Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, came to Bangladesh and engaged with the Bangladesh government about the international crimes tribunal. I just wonder, could you just explain to us where we are with that whole process. Rapp was going to send a document to the Law Minister. And so whether or not you feel American influence over the international crimes tribunal may be affected by the whole Yunus issue in terms of potential leverage or persuasion you may have over the government relationship.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, first of all, I think Ambassador Rapp had a very good visit here and came away with a very favorable sense of the government of Bangladesh’s willingness to address this matter in accordance with international standards. As you say, he has prepared a report, with some further observations that we will be sharing shortly with the government of Bangladesh. I don’t really want to go into the details of that. But just to say that our cooperation is proceeding in a very satisfactory manner. I can’t really comment on, I don’t really see the connection between the Yunus matter and the war crimes issue.

QUESTION: You have talked about compromise. Do you expect compromise from both ends, the government and Dr. Yunus?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well again, I don’t want to get into the business of prescribing what the nature of that compromise should be. I think it’s important for both sides to listen to each other and to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Whatever can be reached, can be worked out between the two parties that is acceptable to them will certainly be acceptable to the United States.

QUESTION: [inaudible] to Jessore yesterday. And you have inspected our system. And I have an understanding that U.S. is interested in providing some equipment to secure our borders. So is there any progress on that front?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think the word “inspected” may be too strong a term. I was afforded a tour of the immigration and customs facilities. I was given a briefing by your border authorities and by representatives from the International Organization for Migration, IOM. And the United States is supporting efforts through IOM to increase your border security. I was very pleased to see how that’s progressing. I think it’s progressing quite well.

Thank you very much. Nice to see you all again.