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Donald Lu's mission to strengthen US-Bangladesh ties

Prof Dr Mizanur Rahman
21 May 2024 21:07:16 | Update: 21 May 2024 22:37:57
Donald Lu's mission to strengthen US-Bangladesh ties
— Courtesy Photo

Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, recently came to Bangladesh on a two-day visit.

Although it was a routine visit, Lu's visit generated significant buzz in Bangladesh's political sphere. This was his first visit to Bangladesh following the recent 12th parliamentary election, although he had visited the country a few times before the election.

Before the election, Lu was outspoken about the human rights situation in Bangladesh, labour rights issues, and the visa restrictions imposed by the United States on specific Bangladeshi individuals. However, during his latest visit, he stated that the primary purpose was to rebuild trust between the people of the two countries.

This marked a notable shift from his tone before the election, sparking significant discussion about his visit.

He acknowledged that before the election, US discussions about ensuring free, fair, and participatory elections in Bangladesh created some tension.

There were also tensions over issues like the ban on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), human rights, freedom of expression, and labour rights. During his visit, Lu aimed to deepen the relationship with Bangladesh, but it seems that the US will continue to monitor human rights, labour rights, and freedom of speech in the country.

In an interview with a private news channel in Bangladesh, Lu did not clearly state whether the ban on RAB would be lifted.

He noted that RAB had significantly reduced extrajudicial killings and disappearances last year, which was good progress. However, he expressed concerns about other law enforcement branches committing similar crimes and emphasised the need for accountability for RAB's past actions.

He emphasised the crimes committed by Bangladeshi law enforcement and admitted the US also has human rights issues but did not mention allegations against US police.

Organisations like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU have highlighted systemic racism, police brutality, and suppression of protests in the US. Recent police crackdowns on Gaza protests in cities like New York and Los Angeles raise questions about the US commitment to freedom of speech and assembly.

According to Statista, a Germany-based online statistics provider, 1,163 people were shot to death by US police in 2023. Of these victims, 425 were white, while 738 were Black or from other races. According to a Lancet study, over the 40-year period from 1980 to 2019, Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely to die from police violence than white Americans.

These data clearly indicate that the United States falls short of being a haven for human rights.

Then there is the issue of labour rights. Recently, the United States raised concerns about labour laws in Bangladesh, with Donald Lu emphasising this issue. While labour rights problems exist in Bangladesh, similar issues are present in the US as well.

Following the Tazreen Fashions fire and Rana Plaza collapse, the US suspended the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for Bangladesh in June 2013 over labour rights issues.

While advocating for improved labour standards abroad, the US faces significant labour rights issues at home, especially in the gig economy.

According to Pew Research Center, many gig workers face income insecurity and lack basic labour protections. California's Proposition 22 allows companies to classify gig workers as independent contractors, creating a permanent underclass with substandard working conditions.

In contrast, the US's suspension of the GSP in 2013 significantly impacted Bangladesh's garment sector, leading to job losses and wage cuts for workers.

The increased cost of garment production further strained the industry, highlighting the urgent need for the US to restore GSP facilities to support Bangladesh's efforts in improving labour rights and factory safety, and to stabilise its economy.

Many experts and politicians suspect that the US's increased pressure on Bangladesh regarding labour rights may be influenced by the recent sentencing of Nobel Laureate economist Dr Mohammad Yunus to six months in jail for violating labour laws.

This high-profile case has drawn international attention, potentially prompting the US suspected by the analysts to leverage labour rights issues as a means to advocate for Dr Yunus and influence Bangladesh's domestic policies.

The US has criticised Bangladesh for limiting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Recently, the country faced backlash for handling Gaza protests on campuses like Columbia University, where police used tear gas and arrested over 2,000 protesters.

This heavy-handed response, especially against those protesting US support for Israeli actions in Gaza, which have resulted in significant civilian casualties, raises questions about the US's commitment to these rights​.

Then the US critique of Bangladesh’s freedom of the press must be viewed in light of challenges faced by American journalists.

The US Press Freedom Tracker has documented numerous instances of arrests and violence against journalists covering protests and political events.

In the first half of this year, 27 journalists were arrested in the United States. In comparison, 14 journalists were arrested in the US throughout 2023.

These incidents undermine the US's position when criticising other nations for press freedom violations, highlighting the need for a more consistent approach to human rights advocacy.

In conclusion, while Donald Lu’s visit underscores the US intention to build stronger ties with Bangladesh, it also offers an opportunity for introspection.

The US must address its own human rights and labour issues to maintain credibility on the global stage. By rectifying these internal challenges, the US can better advocate for the values it seeks to promote internationally.

Simultaneously, Bangladesh should take US concerns seriously, as addressing these issues can pave the way for better economic cooperation and improved labour conditions.

This balanced approach is essential for fostering genuine and lasting partnerships based on mutual respect and shared aspirations. Working together can lead to mutual benefits and stronger relations.

The writer is a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission