What message does the new US visa policy convey?

US Visa Illustration

There has been no beating around the bush concerning the objective of the new US visa policy announced by the US state department on Wednesday. It was aimed at putting pressure on the Bangladesh government to ensure fair, credible and inclusive elections.

In the statement of the US secretary of state Antony Blinken, it was said the policy had been declared in order to "to support Bangladesh's goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national election," and " to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh."

Needless to say, the US would not have felt compelled to declare this new policy had a fair election process and an environment conducive to election already been in place, as the government claims.

The new policy states that the US will not issue visas for any Bangladeshi responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.  It said that this includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services.

The US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller, at the routine press briefing in Washington, and assistant secretary of state Donald Lu, at the Chanel i talk show Tritiyo Matra, did say that this policy was not applicable to the government alone, but to the anti-government opposition too.

However, most of the four reasons given for non-issuance of visa, point towards the government.  These are vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.

Three aspects of this policy declared by the US demand our attention. Firstly, announcing this policy separately. Secondly, the extent of this policy. Thirdly, the events that preceded this policy announcement.

This new policy was declared in accordance to a special section [212 (A)(3)] of the US Immigration and Nationality Act. Under this section of the act, the US government can deny a visa to anyone at any time. There is no need for the government to come up with a separate declaration in this regard.

But in the past, the US has come up with similar announcements in certain countries.  A similar measure was taken on 15 May this year regarding the elections in Nigeria. The same steps were taken against persons in Uganda after the 2021 election there. So there is no reason to believe that this announcement is anything unprecedented. But in Bangladesh's history it never had to face such measures from any country due to political reasons.

From past experience it had been seen that the US would take such measures after the incident. In Nigeria and Uganda, the measures were taken against the officials there only after the elections. But in Bangladesh the policy was announced seven months ahead of the possible election.

That means if any quarter creates an obstruction to the election before the election takes place, the US will not hesitate to take action. The US state department spokesperson Miller says this is a signal to the people of Bangladesh that we will only support a free and fair election. They are ready to take action in this regard.

The second aspect of this policy is the extent of its coverage. It does not only mention those connected to the executive or those at various levels of power, but it includes the judiciary too. The recent statement of the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) mayor Sheikh Fazle Nur Taposh is enough to explain this.

According to news reports, speaking at the founding anniversary of Bangabandhu Awami Lawyers Association, Mayor Sheikh Fazle Nur Taposh said that he had even removed a chief justice.

Former chief justice SK Sinha in his book, 'A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy', claimed that he had come under pressure from the government to ensure that the ruling regarding scrapping the 16th amendment to the parliament went in favour of the government. He was forced to resign and leave the country.

Another aspect of the extent of this policy was revealed in the statement of Donald Lu during his interview with Zillur Rahman on Tritiyo Matra. He said that the restrictions would also apply those who had given orders to the persons ineligible for US visa. The challenge of implementing such an extensive policy would be to identify those involved in such acts. But perhaps it won't be so hard to  find those who gave the orders. After announcing this policy, the US statement mentioned that the Bangladesh government had been informed on 3 May about the policy.

In the interview, Donald Lu said that he had personally apprised the Bangladesh government about the matter. It may be recalled that on 3 May Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had travelled to the US and on 4 May had joined the ninth US-Bangladesh partnership dialogue. Donald Lu was a part of the US delegation at that meeting.

It is clear from this that Bangladesh was informed of the matter at that time and the government people were aware of this. Then after that, during her visit to the US, in an interview with BBN Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina alleged that possible the US did not want to see her in power.

Returning to the country on 15 May, she said that Bangladesh would not make any purchases from the countries that would place sanctions on Bangladesh and that she had instructed the finance ministry accordingly. Not only that, it was also announced that the special security arrangements, police escort,  for the ambassadors of certain countries in Bangladesh, including the US, would be withdrawn.

As these incidents took place after learning about the US policy, these may be considered as the government's primary response. However, it is interesting that the government's official reaction to the policy has been somewhat soft.

Ministers and ruling party leaders say that Awami League has no problems with this policy. If that is so, the question may well be asked as to why then, after 3 May, were such comments made.

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of the department of politics and government, of the Illinois State University in the US, non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council  and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir