U.S. Sanctions Bangladesh – A Case of Bad Geopolitics?

 By Mohak Gambhir


On 10 December 2021 – International Human Rights Day, the U.S. Department of the Treasury placed sanctions on several countries for human rights abuses. Bangladesh was one of the countries along with China, Myanmar and North Korea.[1] The sanctions were against Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). RAB was created in 2004 with the primary tasks of improving internal security and emphasising gathering intelligence on organised criminal activities in the country. Following pleas from several non-government organisations (NGOs) for action against RAB citing enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. The U.S. treasury finally designated the organisation “a foreign entity that is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.”[2] Sanctions also included the current Director-General, Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun and five former Additional Director Generals of RAB. A few days before the sanctions, the U.S. had dropped Bangladesh from the Democracy Summit on 09-10 December 2021.

Bangladesh’s Reaction

There was a strong but not belligerent reaction from Bangladesh. The Foreign Secretary, Masud Bin Momen said Bangladesh was surprised by U.S. action and was trying to sort the issue out. The Foreign Secretary insisted that RAB follows due procedures in carrying out its stated mandate.[3] Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan called out the U.S. for not having fairly imposed the sanctions, with complete disregard to Bangladesh’s well adhered procedures of dealing with any human rights violations by government agencies. There have been instances of security officials, including from RAB, being prosecuted and sentenced by the country’s judicial system for rights violations. The local rights activists, on the other hand, welcomed the sanctions.

According to Michael Kugleman[4], Bangladesh’s immediate concerns are reputational. Being clubbed with countries like China, Myanmar and North Korea who have a terrible record for their human rights abuses, does not bode well for an emerging economy like Bangladesh. This development does not align with the ruling government’s efforts to promote Bangladesh as a prosperous and secular country.

Whether this is a one-off event or broader economic sanctions will follow will guide how Bangladesh will expand on its response. This is because of Bangladesh’s extensive economic and trade relations with the U.S. The U.S. remains the single largest export market for Bangladeshi goods. The bilateral trade stood at USD 9 billion, with Bangladesh exports at USD 6.7 billion.[5] To continue its rapid economic growth, Bangladesh needs the U.S. and will not be looking to sour the relations over these sanctions. One other factor that might affect Bangladesh’s approach to the matter is if U.S. allies like the U.K, Canada and Australia would also join in placing sanctions against Bangladesh to force it to improve its human rights record. So far, that has not happened.

Understanding U.S. Action

The U.S. actions seem strange given the countries Bangladesh was put with while being sanctioned. This step makes little sense from the geopolitical perspective as it may drive Bangladesh deeper into the Chinese sphere of influence, which may have more significant implications for India, the United States’ strategic partner. According to some analysts like Kugleman, the reason behind this move could be that the Biden administration is focusing on Bangladesh to advance its democracy promotion objectives.

It is interesting to note that these sanctions are indeed sudden, at least for Bangladesh. RAB travelled to the U.S in 2019 “to receive training on Location-Based Social Network Monitoring System Software.”[6] The U.S. State Department’s ‘Country Reports on Terrorism 2020: Bangladesh’ highlights how RAB established “deradicalization and rehabilitation programs, in addition to conducting community policing efforts and investigations”[7] without any mention of human rights abuses. The U.S. Army hosted the Bangladesh Army Chief, General Aziz Ahmed, in February 2021. [8]

In November 2021, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Bangladesh, Kelly Keiderling, spoke to a Bangladesh newspaper, The Daily Star. During her interview, she said how “the U.S. has a modern idea of Bangladesh being a vibrant economy and a major contributor to world security in terms of U.N. peacekeeping.”[9] Talking about the AUKUS, she said the pact was made keeping in mind maritime security and how the U.S wants to ensure that countries like Bangladesh have the capacity to patrol its maritime security. She also insisted how the U.S. does not just want to “do business and make money. The American diplomacy desires to protect and promote democracy.”[10]

The United States’ recently increased emphasis on democracy and human rights concerning Bangladesh begs the question as to why the U.S has taken such a step right now. There are a few possibilities. One could be that the U.S. has a more significant role for the country in its Indo-Pacific strategy. It is possible that the newly elected administration in the U.S. feels that it would be easier to sell this more significant role for Bangladesh domestically if the country starts properly addressing the human rights issue. But then again, the human rights issue has never stopped the U.S. from engaging countries if its interests are served. The other possibility is that the new administration has put democracy and human rights protection at the centre of its foreign policy. However, such a policy may be detrimental to its strategic partners like India, for whom Bangladesh is a crucial security partner in South Asia.


If the recent sanctions are merely a beginning of a stricter U.S approach towards countries in human rights matters, then it could be a tough road ahead for Bangladesh and, to some extent, India. In an increasingly challenging security environment full of sub-conventional threats, cooperation between states become an indispensable tenet of a country’s overall security strategy. The U.K. trained RAB in at least the late 2000s to strengthen the counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh and considered it an essential component of its counter-terrorism strategy in South Asia.[11] This step was despite the U.K officials being aware of the allegations against RAB.

For India, the U.S. sanctions are a matter of concern since further sanctions could affect the counter-terrorism progress made in Bangladesh and the increasing cooperation between the two countries. The current sanctions do not include primary agencies responsible for dealing with terrorism in Bangladesh, i.e., the Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU) and Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU). The latter has been especially crucial in stabilising the security situation in India’s northeast.[12] India will need to follow these developments closely. India must raise these concerns with the U.S and stress the need for the two countries to be more considerate of each other’s long-term security needs.


[1] “Treasury Sanctions Perpetrators of Serious Human Rights Abuse on International Human Rights Day”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 10 Dec 2021. Available at Treasury Sanctions Perpetrators of Serious Human Rights Abuse on International Human Rights Day | U.S. Department of the Treasury accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[2] Ibid

[3] Porimol Palma (2021), “Sanctions on Rab Officials: Time for Dhaka to correct course”, The Daily Star, 15 Dec, Available at Sanctions on Rab Officials: Time for Dhaka to correct course | The Daily Star, accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[4] Ibid

[5] “U.S.-Bangladesh Trade Facts”, Office of the United States Trade Representative, Available at Bangladesh | United States Trade Representative (ustr.gov) accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[6] “Freedom on the Net”, Freedom House, Available at Freedom-House.pdf (courthousenews.com) accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[7] “Country Reports on Terrorism 2020: Bangladesh”, U.S Department of State, Available at Bangladesh – United States Department of State, accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[8] Michael Kugleman (2021), “Why Did the United States Just Sanction Bangladesh?”, Foreign Policy, 16 December, Available at Why Did the United States Just Sanction Bangladesh? (foreignpolicy.com) accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[9] Porimol Palma (2021), “US sees Bangladesh in a new light now”, The Daily Star, 21 Nov, Available at US sees Bangladesh in a new light now | The Daily Star accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[10] Ibid

[11] Fariha Karim and Ian Cobain (2010), “WikiLeaks cables: Bangladeshi ‘death squad’ trained by UK government”, The Guardian, 21 Dec, Available at WikiLeaks cables: Bangladeshi ‘death squad’ trained by UK government | Bangladesh | The Guardian accessed on 10 Jan 2022

[12] “Bangladesh counter terrorism unit recovers large stash of ammunition near the Tripura border”, India Narrative, 28 Dec 2021, Available at Bangladesh counter terrorism unit recovers large stash of ammunition near the Tripura border (indianarrative.com), accessed on 10 Jan 2022