US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas has said the US will not take any side in the upcoming elections in Bangladesh and reiterated US commitment across the world to help countries strengthen democracy.
“Let me be clear: the United States will not pick a side in the upcoming elections. We simply hope for a democratic process that allows the Bangladeshi people to freely decide who will run their country,” he said while addressing a seminar on Sunday.
Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) organized the seminar on “Bangladesh and the United States Relations: Moving towards Enhanced Cooperation and Partnership” at the BIISS auditorium.
Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen spoke as the chief guest at the event in which the US envoy highlighted three areas ripe for growth in the bilateral relationship - security, human rights and democracy, and economic ties.
Ambassador Haas said the two countries can work together to promote democracy and protect human rights and acknowledged that the United States is not perfect. “As the relationship grows, the conversation broadens.”
"We have embarked on our own democratic renewal. This journey includes tackling our own issues with police accountability and ensuring all Americans can cast their ballots on election day,” he said, adding that they are inviting countries around the world to make similar commitments to strengthen their democracies.
Ambassador Haas said he is pleased Foreign Minister Momen stated that Bangladesh will welcome international observers during the next election.
He also welcomed the Law Minister’s commitment to reform the Digital Security Act to prevent further abuses.
“Holding an election consistent with international standards is not just about the day votes are actually cast,” Ambassador Haas mentioned.
In effect, he said, the elections have already started. “Truly democratic elections require the space for civic discourse to take place, an environment where journalists can investigate without fear, and the ability for civil society organizations to advocate broadly.”
Enhanced Security Cooperation
The US Ambassador said the relations between the two countries grew with a series of recent engagements while two more important engagements will be held in the coming months and the two countries can increase the security cooperation.
He talked about two proposed agreements - General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) which are "essential" to enabling a closer defence relationship, expanding opportunities for defence trade, information sharing, and military-to-military cooperation between the two countries.
The Ambassador said GSOMIA would set ground rules for exchanging sensitive information about military procurements.
This framework would enable Bangladesh to modernize its military with U.S. technology, contributing to Bangladesh’s Forces Goal 2030, he said.
Meanwhile ACSA would allow the two militaries to offer each other assistance on the high seas, to lend equipment or spare parts when an aircraft, vehicle, or vessel is in trouble, or to simply exchange fuel and food, the ambassador said.
An ACSA has a real-world impact on safety and interoperability, like when a vessel ends up stranded in the Port of Beirut after the 2020 explosion or during joint humanitarian relief efforts in the Bay of Bengal, said Ambassador Haas.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about the GSOMIA and ACSA. They are technical agreements. They do not reflect an “alliance” or “military pact.” Nor do they constitute a broad and vague defense cooperation agreement, such as the one Bangladesh signed with China in 2002,” he mentioned.
The US envoy said the proposed deals are simple building blocks to a closer relationship and to allow them to help Bangladesh’s armed forces advance its own defense goals. “And they are common. More than 70 countries have signed these agreements with us.”
Regarding law enforcement and sanctions, the Ambassador made it clear that there is no scope for repeal of sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion without concrete action and accountability. “I will be honest.”
He said they want to see a RAB that remains effective at combatting terrorism, but that does so while respecting basic human rights.
“But RAB sanctions do not mean we cannot enhance our strong law enforcement security cooperation. We will continue to work with Bangladesh to combat transnational crime and terrorism, enhance border security, and prevent violent extremism,” Ambassador Haas said.
He said they will continue their support to Counterterrorism and Transnational Crime policing, the Anti-Terrorism Unit, and the specialized units of the Metropolitan Police in Chattogram, Sylhet, and Rajshahi.
The signing of a proposed Memorandum of Agreement would facilitate implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Assistance training program and to donate new equipment to the police, said the US envoy.
Economic Ties Ambassador Haas said the United States is ready to move the economic relationship forward. Next month, he will welcome the inaugural visit of the Executive Committee of the U.S.-Bangladesh Business Council.
He announced that the U.S. Embassy will welcome the first ever full-time attaché from the U.S. Department of Commerce this summer. “This is a testament to the importance we place on growing our two-way trade and investment relationship.”
As a middle-income country, Bangladesh will be competing on equal footing with major economies.
Issues like intellectual property rights, supply chain efficiencies, access to quality higher education, and a transparent and inclusive business environment will become ever more important.
“How Bangladesh regulates internet activity will also impact foreign investment and the willingness of companies to do business in Bangladesh,” said the US envoy.
New Opportunities For instance, the envoy said, the newly established U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (or DFC) has a $4 billion active portfolio in South Asia across multiple sectors including clean energy, agriculture, healthcare, and banking.
Unfortunately, he said, the DFC is unable to operate in Bangladesh for the same reason Bangladesh is ineligible for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade benefit: a lack of labor rights.
"The United States is ready to hit the gas to enhance our partnership and realize the great potential of our relationship. We are ready to move as quickly as you are," he said.
Ambassador Haas said Bangladesh-US relationship is at a “turning point” and over the past 50 years, the two countries have built a robust relationship together, binding cultures, peoples, and economies. “And the United States is ready to move as fast as Bangladesh wants to expand and deepen our ties.”
The envoy said they look to the future and they must recognize that the bilateral relationship will change. “The reason is simple: Bangladesh has changed.”
Bangladesh is now one of the fastest growing economies in the Indo-Pacific, said Ambassador Haas, adding that “You are preparing for graduation from Least Developed Country status and racing ahead toward middle income status.”
This change brings about a new dynamic, he said and added, “Simply put, the United States conducts diplomacy with major economies and with regional leaders differently.”
The seminar was chaired by BIISS Chairman Ambassador Kazi Imtiaz Hossain while its Director General Major General Mohammad Maksudur Rahman delivered the welcome remarks.
Prof Ruksana Kibria of Department of International Relations at DU talked on the topic titled “The evolving Bangladesh- US relations” while Brig. General (Retd.) Dr M Sakhawat Hossain, Senior Fellow, South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance, North-South University and former Election Commissioner of Bangladesh, made a presentation on “Bangladesh-US Partnership for Enhanced Security in South Asia”.
Ambassador Humayun Kabir, President, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) talked about “Contemporary Dynamics of Bangladesh-US relations and the Way Forward.”
The presentations were followed by the remarks of designated discussant Ambassador Tariq A. Karim, Director, Center for Bay of Bengal Studies, Independent University Bangladesh.