Momen, Blinken meeting to highlight fair elections, human rights

Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen (L) and US Secretary of State Antony BlinkenFile photo, Reuters

The United States has repeatedly stressed in recent times that it wants the upcoming parliamentary election in Bangladesh to be free, fair and neutral. Even in his message on Bangladesh’s Independence Day on 26 March, the US President Joe Biden mentioned the issue of fair elections as well as the protection of human rights. According to diplomatic sources in Dhaka and Washington, issues such as elections and upholding human rights will be addressed with importance in the meeting between Bangladesh's Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A bilateral meeting between the two foreign ministers will be held in Washington at noon (local time) on Monday. Earlier, the two foreign ministers met in Washington to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries on 4 April last year.

Diplomatic sources in Dhaka and Washington say that Assistant Secretary of State of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu and US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet while visiting to Dhaka in February also put significance on Bangladesh's commitment to democracy, free and fair elections and human rights protection. It is assumed that Antony Blinken will bring up the issues again in the meeting with AK Abdul Momen. Abdul Momen has been briefed from the top level of the government about the steps Bangladesh has decided to take in the coming days regarding democracy, elections and human rights. He will highlight the preparation and position of the Bangladesh government regarding free and fair elections in the meeting.

Foreign minister Abdul Momen has admitted that the issue of the next election will be highlighted in this discussion in Washington. He told the media at an event in the capital on Wednesday, "The US wants a transparent, good and credible election in Bangladesh. Awami League also believes in elections. We came to power through elections. We fought for democracy. Three million people gave their lives to uphold democracy. That's why we don't need lesson on democracy. Democracy is in our blood. The government intends to include everyone in the election and we will apprise them of this.

The foreign minister further said, the election will be held according to the constitution. Anyone thinking otherwise will be wrong.

Besides underlining the government's position on the election, Bangladesh will seek more US engagement in the development of the country. After 2026 graduation from the list of least developed countries, Bangladesh will need relentless foreign investment to keep the development progress smooth. Bangladesh wants US cooperation in this regard. Bangladesh also seeks to discuss market opportunities for increasing trade.

The foreign minister told reporters before leaving for the United States that Bangladesh will convey its expectations regarding increasing trade and investment and the US’ extensive involvement in economic progress among other issues.

Matters to be prioritised by both sides

Several officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have said that beside elections, human rights and good governance, the matter of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances may be discussed in the meeting. Diplomatic sources hinted that political parties being able to carry out programmes peacefully and issues of freedom of expression and media can be brought up for discussion. US concerns over certain provisions of the Digital Security Act specifically restricting freedom of expression and the proposed Data Protection Act can be raised in the meeting.

In addition to strengthening economic and trade relations, the lifting of sanctions on RAB, duty and quota-free access to Bangladeshi products, restoration of GSP, continued cooperation on the Rohingya issue and putting pressure on Myanmar for repatriation, bringing back Rashed Chowdhury, the killer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, will be discussed with the US. Apart from this, prime minister Sheikh Hasina's visit at the beginning of May to Washington may also be discussed. The PM will go to the US to attend an event organised to mark 50 years of World Bank relations with Bangladesh. The US Secretary of State may meet the PM in a courtesy meeting at the time.

Emphasis on open dialogue

The United States imposed sanctions against RAB and seven of its officials for alleged serious human rights abuses in 2021. After that, the relationship between the two countries became strained. US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu, US President Joe Biden's Special Adviser Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher in January and US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet’s visit to Dhaka last February eased the discomfort between the two countries. The US with the visit of three diplomats conveyed the message that it deems the relations with Dhaka very important.

Donald Lu even said during the talks at different levels during his visit to Dhaka last January, there should be a open dialogue on the challenges of protecting democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. He said, Bangladesh’s democracy is not flawless like the US democracy. It is better to solve the problems through open dialogues when any problem is raised instead of slamming counter statements.

Derek Chollet also emphasised open discussion between the two countries on various issues. Derek Chollet while visiting Dhaka said, “Our partnership in politics, security and economy is increasing and we are optimistic of our bilateral relations for the next 50 years.”

However, the death of a woman in Naogaon in RAB custody, the US State Department spokesperson's comments on German-based media Deutsche Welle's documentary on RAB, and the latest debates over the Digital Security Act only two weeks before the meeting of the two foreign ministers have created some unease for the government.

Regarding the meeting of the two foreign ministers, the former foreign secretary and Bangabandhu chair of Delhi University Shahidul Haque told Prothom Alo on Sunday that the main focus of US foreign policy is human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The US seeks to develop bilateral relations based on these factors. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. But the US always makes the effort. Bangladesh is now much stronger and more strongly connected to the global system than at any time in the past.

The former foreign secretary believes, a sort of competition has emerged around India and the Pacific Ocean led by China and the United States for a new world order where both the rival countries want Bangladesh by their side. Because of that, this meeting with Washington cannot be considered from a bilateral perspective only.

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla online, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat