Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Testimony: Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission U.S. Congress
Washington, DC
July 19, 2012

 Good afternoon.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today regarding the human rights situation in Bangladesh. I appreciate Congress’ active interest in the region and in the wide range of U.S. Government programs and activities there. Bangladesh is a country of strategic importance to the United States. It is the seventh largest country in the world by population, and it has the world’s fourth largest Muslim population. It is a moderate, tolerant, secular, democratic alternative to violent extremism. A leader in promoting regional connectivity and improved ties with its neighbors, Bangladesh promotes stability in a troubled region. As the largest contributor of forces to UN peacekeeping missions in some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, Bangladesh fosters global peace.

Bangladesh has been growing at an annual rate of 5 to 6 percent over the past two decades. It is an increasingly important trading partner and destination of U.S. investment. U.S. exports to Bangladesh doubled during the last year. The United States is the largest investor in Bangladesh. Bangladesh also is a focus country for all of the President’s signature “development initiatives,” including the Global Health Initiative, the Global Climate Change Initiative and the Feed the Future Initiative.

The United States and Bangladesh cooperate closely on security issues ranging from counterterrorism to counterpiracy and the mitigation of natural disasters, all of which were discussed during the first-ever U.S. Bangladesh Security Dialogue in April. The Government of Bangladesh has also consistently prioritized greater regional integration- a key U.S. interest in a region that remains among the least integrated in the world. Secretary Clinton visited Bangladesh in May, marking the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in nine years. While there, she and her Bangladeshi counterpart announced the U.S.-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue to provide strategic direction to the wide array of existing and future partnership activities.

During her trip, Secretary Clinton also raised many serious concerns about human rights issues with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, as well as with leading members of Bangladeshi civil society and at events with the press and the public at large. The Secretary’s public and private remarks underscore this administration’s consistent policy of raising human rights concerns with the Government of Bangladesh in order to safeguard Bangladesh’s role as a moderate democracy with a vibrant press and dynamic civil society. Secretary Clinton noted our concern about the murder of labor rights activist Aminul Islam and the disappearance of opposition local leader Ilyas Ali. The rights of workers were also front-and-center on the Secretary’s visit to Bangladesh. We have urged the Government of Bangladesh to allow workers to freely form unions, and allow organizations that seek to protect worker’s rights to operate freely. This is not only an ethical question, but also one that has the potential to have a huge impact on the Bangladeshi economy.

The ready-made garments industry employs millions of Bangladeshis, 90 percent of whom are women. American and other foreign buyers are increasingly unwilling to have their valuable brand names associated with abuse of workers’ rights and it is clearly in Bangladesh’s interests to make progress on this issue. My colleague Eric Biel from the Department of Labor can speak more on this.

There continue to be credible reports that Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (or RAB), a paramilitary law enforcement group made up of policemen and Army soldiers, is involved with some extrajudicial killings and disappearances. Due to Leahy vetting requirements, we are barred from providing RAB with any form of training other than that related to human rights. To this end, the U.S. Government embedded a retired U.S. marshal within RAB for four months last year to help stand up and operationalize an internal affairs unit that will provide a much-needed mechanism to hold accountable those who commit human rights violations.

Civil society has been Bangladesh’s calling card for decades. Homegrown organizations like BRAC and Grameen Bank have gone global, exporting innovative ideas like microfinance to a worldwide audience. Maintaining the traditional vibrancy of Bangladeshi civil society is a priority for the State Department.

For this reason, we are concerned by reports from some local NGOs that space for civil society is shrinking. Nearly two years after the resignation of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, Grameen Bank has been without a permanent managing director at its helm. While the Bank has continued its good work, we have emphasized both to the government and the Grameen Board the importance of finding a qualified replacement for Dr. Yunus who is acceptable to all sides and who can preserve the integrity and effectiveness of the Bank in helping Bangladesh’s most vulnerable citizens and fulfilling its commitment to its 8.3 million borrowers, most of them women.

We’ve also been disappointed by Bangladesh’s policy of turning away Rohingya and other individuals fleeing ethnic and sectarian violence in Burma since early June. This stands in marked contrast to the country’s traditional policy of non-refoulement. The U.S. Government has and will continue to raise concern for the well-being of these individuals at the highest levels.

There is positive news to report as well. We were encouraged this past spring when the Government of Bangladesh passed comprehensive anti-trafficking-in-persons legislation that, when fully enforced, could make a huge difference in protecting some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. While Bangladesh has made progress in protecting women and children victims of trafficking, this law is the first of its kind in Bangladesh that also guards against the exploitation of male laborers.

I want to end by repeating what I said earlier – as a successful moderate, tolerant, secular, democratic alternative to violent extremism, and as a model for lifting millions of poverty, providing an important voice for regional stability, contributing more than any other country to UN peacekeeping, Bangladesh is of strategic importance to the United States.

But it still faces many challenges that the U.S. is working with and encouraging Bangladesh to address. With that I am happy to take your questions.