Peter Haas joined as US Ambassador to Bangladesh last month. In an interview with Prothom Alo he talked about challenges and the future of relations between the two countries. Prothom Alo’s diplomatic correspondent Raheed Ejaz took the interview.
You took over as U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh at a critical juncture. On one hand, the sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have cast a shadow on the relationship between the two countries. On the other, the two countries are engaging in series of discussions, including the Partnership Dialogue, the Security Dialogue, and the Defence Dialogue. How do you feel while starting your assignment in Dhaka?
I am thrilled to represent the United States in Bangladesh as we celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. The successes of Bangladesh over the past 50 years have been remarkable. And the high-level conversations we are having on politics, human rights, economics, and security tell me that the next 50 years of partnership will be fantastic.
I think it is apparent that the issue of RAB sanctions is just one small part of our overall relations.
Bangladesh is one of the major partners of the United States in countering terrorism. In recent years, security and defence cooperation has grown in manifold ways. However, Bangladesh authorities feel that the recent sanction against RAB and some of its officials, would not help; rather these sanctions would cast a shadow on security ties. What is your take on that?
I fully expect our security and defence cooperation to grow. Our current ties are deep and multifaceted. Members of the U.S. military recently took part in a two-week exercise with the Bangladesh military here in Bangladesh. The exercise was called Tiger Lightning 22, and it was designed to strengthen Bangladesh defense readiness, build operational interoperability, and reinforce the partnership between our military forces. We continue to provide training to law enforcement personnel and security services.
But President Biden has been clear: Human rights are at the centre of U.S. foreign policy. As part of this commitment, the United States imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and some of its officials based on credible evidence of serious human rights abuse.
We do have some concerns about Bangladesh, which we have raised with your government. We are concerned about the Digital Security Act and press freedom. We are concerned about human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances
There is a perception that Washington is looking at Dhaka through the lens of Delhi. What is your take on that?
The United States looks at our relationship with Bangladesh on its own merits. You are the eighth most populous country in the world with one of the world’s fastest growing economy. You are part of the Indo-Pacific region. We look at you as a partner.
Democracy and governance are one of the key areas of cooperation between the two countries. However, Washington did not invite Dhaka to the first Democracy Summit hosted by President Joe Biden. Do you think that was a right decision from the White House to exclude Bangladesh, one of the key partners in the region? How does the United States plan to work with Bangladesh to further consolidate progress on democracy, governance, human rights, and freedom of speech?
When President Biden hosted the first of two Summits for Democracy in December, he invited democracies that represented a diversity of regions, a diversity of country sizes, and other factors. The goals of the Summit were to build momentum for democratic reform and to demonstrate that democracies deliver meaningful results for their people.
We do have some concerns about Bangladesh, which we have raised with your government. We are concerned about the Digital Security Act and press freedom. We are concerned about human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. We worry about the inability of labour to organise. We will continue to discuss those issues with Bangladesh in an open, transparent manner.
Every vibrant democracy must work constantly to live up to its founding ideals and commitment to human rights and social justice for all citizens. This includes the United States, where we are working to confront racial inequality and discrimination.
President Biden has called internationally for a “Year of Action” for countries to commit to global democratic renewal, to promote good governance, protect human rights, and fight corruption. As we undertake action ourselves, we invite Bangladesh to work with us on concrete items to advance prosperity, security, democracy, and human rights, which are inextricably linked.
In her recent visit to Dhaka, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said the United States wanted to see Bangladesh engaging with most of the components of the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). Did the United States formally request Bangladesh to engage with IPS?
There seems to be widespread misperceptions about what the Indo-Pacific Strategy is and is not. For example, it is not a military alliance. It is not something countries “join”. It is not a demand for countries to “choose sides”. Our Indo-Pacific Strategy is our own commitment to an Indo-Pacific region that is free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient. Our vision is similar to that of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s. At last year’s Paris Peace Forum, she spoke of a Bangladesh’s vision of free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
The United States understands that we cannot accomplish our vision for the Indo-Pacific alone. We must cooperate with those who share our goals. And this is where Bangladesh comes in. We want to engage with you on our shared goals for the region.
The United States is so far the largest investor in Bangladesh where energy is the key focus. Is there scope for diversification beyond energy? What are the probable sectors to attract U.S. investors? As a trade expert, do you believe that Bangladesh needs to improve its business climate to get more U.S. investment?
Bangladesh is definitely high on the radar of U.S. businesses looking to expand in the region. In fact, we are looking forward to the early May visit by the U.S.-Bangladesh Business Council. This group, formed just last year, already has 50 large corporations as members, all of which are eager to invest in or do business with Bangladesh. We will soon have our second government-to-government High-Level Economic Consultation.
Potential investors definitely look at the business climate – and Bangladesh must compete constantly with other countries where the business climate is more welcoming. As Bangladesh further develops a skilled workforce whose rights are protected, builds a legislative framework that supports business, and eliminates the hidden taxes of corruption and needless bureaucracy, more companies will invest here.
When Secretary of State Blinken announced on 21 March that he had determined that genocide had occurred in Burma, he noted that the path out of genocide runs through justice, and many of us are determined to end the Burmese military’s decades-long impunity
The United States so far provides the highest number of vaccines to tackle Covid-19. Also, Washington gave special funds and training to tackle the pandemic. What is the United States’ plan to support Bangladesh to contain pandemics like Covid-19 in the future?
Bangladesh has had great success in fighting Covid-19. In fact, you have a higher initial vaccination rate than the United States. I like to think that Bangladesh has had no better friend than the United States during this pandemic. The United States has now donated more than 61 million vaccine doses to Bangladesh, more than any other country. We have also contributed $131 million in Covid assistance to protect people’s health.
But it is also important to recognise that Bangladesh was there for us as well. In the very beginning of the pandemic, your industry mobilised to supply us with cloth masks.
For tackling the challenge of climate change, the United States is one of the major partners of Bangladesh. How does the United States plan to support Bangladesh by providing technology or funding?
First of all, I want to thank Bangladesh for its leadership when it comes to climate change. It was Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and Prime Minister Hasina participated in the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate meeting last September.
The United States shares a strong partnership with Bangladesh to address impacts of climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. President Biden has made fighting climate change a top priority for his administration. In April 2021, the President released the first-ever U.S. International Climate Finance Plan and announced a quadrupling of the U.S. international climate finance pledge at the UN General Assembly in September, including the largest U.S. commitment ever made to reduce climate impacts on those most vulnerable to climate change worldwide.
The United States is one of the key partners of Bangladesh's development journey through the USAID in poverty alleviation, food security, health, education etc. As Bangladesh is alleviating towards middle income country, Bangladesh will not get the same support in future. What is the plan of the United States to support Bangladesh after the transition?
Our commitment to Bangladesh will not change. Our partnership is strong and will be stronger still.
Bangladesh has made impressive strides – graduating from “least developed country” status towards becoming a middle-income country. The United States applauds this achievement, and we’re proud of our partnership over the past 50 years, in which we’ve provided $8 billion of assistance to Bangladesh.
We continue to invest around $200 million each year towards development programmes in health, agriculture, education, democracy and governance, labour rights, climate change, and providing greater economic opportunities more broadly.
Our partnership will continue to evolve, as it has for the past five decades, to meet the evolving needs of Bangladeshis. The United States will continue to work with Bangladesh and build on the progress we’ve made together in food security, health, and reducing poverty – while identifying new and innovative approaches to address issues like climate change, promoting democratic principles, and sustaining Bangladesh’s impressive economic growth.
Since the exodus of August 2017, there is no headway to resolve the Rohingya crisis. And the military takeover of February 2021 in Myanmar further aggravates the situation of the country. In the context of such a complex scenario, do you believe there is still opportunity to start repatriation?
I recently visited Cox’s Bazar and saw first-hand the sobering scale of the Rohingya crisis. That’s why I was proud to announce the United States is providing more than $152 million in new humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya refugees, those affected by ongoing violence in Burma, and communities hosting refugees from Burma. This brings the total we’ve provided since August 2017 to more than $1.7 billion. Of this new funding, more than $125 million is for programmes in Bangladesh — for Rohingya refugees and affected Bangladeshi communities.
When Secretary of State Blinken announced on 21 March that he had determined that genocide had occurred in Burma, he noted that the path out of genocide runs through justice, and many of us are determined to end the Burmese military’s decades-long impunity. The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them.
Secretary Blinken also said the path out of genocide leads home. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees released a report based on interviews with thousands of Rohingya refugees across the region that found that two out of three Rohingya refugees still want to be able to return home to Burma one day – as long as they can do it safely, with dignity, with human rights, which is not possible now.
In the meantime, we hope the government of Bangladesh will join with us and other international donors to improve conditions in the camps. We should work together to ensure the refugees’ security, give them access to education, and provide them opportunities to earn a livelihood.
What is your expectation from Bangladesh regarding the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war? Russia claims that the West, led by the United States, put pressure on Bangladesh to stand against Moscow. What is your view on that claim?
Russia's brutal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable. The human costs of this unwarranted, unprovoked, and unjustified war on Ukraine are already staggering. This is not about one country’s security, or one region’s – all countries have a vital interest in defending the principles and values that keep us all safe.
The U.S. government is working closely with allies, partners, and international institutions and organisations across the world to address the situation in Ukraine. We are committed to pursuing accountability using every tool available.
Now is the time for ALL democracies to stand together against autocratic aggression. Now is the time for leaders of those democracies to do the right thing. One doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of history on this issue. We’ve seen the horrors emerging from recaptured places such as Bucha. This is a moment for all free peoples of the world to come together and say, “This war must end!”
Dhaka and Washington are celebrating 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties. What is your expectation about the relationship for the next 50 years?
As we look toward the next 50 years of friendship, I am tremendously optimistic. Our cooperation on the economy, development, security, climate change shows the range of our strong and multi-faceted partnership and future potential.