What Secretary Kerry Should Tell Bangladesh Officials

August 29, 2016

For many months now, Bangladesh has been roiled by grisly murders in its streets, terrorist attacks, and severe political unrest. This is the situation Secretary of State John Kerry will be walking into when he visits the country today to meet with high-ranking government officials and civil society leaders. How can he best take advantage of this opportunity?

The announcement of Kerry’s visit is welcome news tohuman rights activists and organizations that have been urging Secretary Kerry and the State Department to more assertively engage the Bangladesh government. Since February 2015, terror attacks have claimed the lives of dozens of Bangladeshis of all backgrounds — Hindus, Shias, Sufis, Christians, secularists, atheists, foreign nationals, professors, students, LGBT activists, and even the wife of a top police investigator. Most were targeted for their criticism of fundamentalist Islam and advocacy for secular values, and brutally hacked to death in the streets by young, radicalized Islamists.

Kerry’s visit comes almost exactly two months since Islamist militants killed 20 hostages in a Bangladesh cafe, and five months since the Secretary himself phoned Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina to express dismay over the killings of LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy.

The U.S. government has been sending diplomats and counter-terrorism strategists to Bangladesh for months. But given the severity of this crisis, it is clear more needs to be done. While no miracles can be worked in the space of a single day’s visit, Secretary Kerry nonetheless has the opportunity to personally press for specific actions that the Bangladesh government can take that can begin to turn the tide away from chaos and terror.

In his visit to Bangladesh, Secretary Kerry should make several things clear.

— It is time for the Bangladesh government, in particular Prime Minister Hasina, to face reality: militant Islamism is spreading throughout the country through madrassas and terror cells, spawning an increasing number of attacks that threaten all of the country’s citizens.

Hasina and her administration have pinned the responsibility for terror attacks on political opponents, and denied the existence of any foreign terror group such as ISIL or Al Qaeda within Bangladesh. Yet while terrorism in Bangladesh is mainly homegrown, and there may not be strong evidence that ISIL is operating in the country, it is very clear that they are providing inspiration for an increasing number attacks. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent is active in the country. Bangladesh, it seems, is a breeding ground for foreign terror groups.

— Bangladesh government officials must stand strong for human rights, both in word and in deed. Following attacks on atheist and secularist bloggers and activists, government officials have appallingly implied that that those murdered were responsible for their own deaths, simply because they criticized religious ideology. Hasina and other high-ranking officials must firmly and definitively defend the right to free expression for all of Bangladesh’s people, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.

Bangladesh has made commitments to protect the freedoms of religion, belief, and expression for all its citizens, both in its own constitution, and as a signatory to international covenants. And by protecting the right freedom of expression, the Bangladesh government would allow for its citizens to publicly counter extremist thinking—something the government has not been willing to do.

— Law enforcement practices must be reformed and improved. The official responses to recent attacks have been flawed to say the least.

First, police officers have not taken seriously death threats against citizens, and denied protection to those known to be at risk, leaving victims, their families, and other threatened individuals to fend entirely for themselves. In February 2015, machete-wielding attackers killed freethought writer Avijit Roy and severely injured author and humanist activist Bonya Ahmed—Bangladeshi-American citizens—as police looked on and did nothing to stop the violence. Bonya heard nothing from the Bangladesh government until December 2015, at a Congressional briefing in Washington, where Bangladesh embassy officials seemingly attended merely to “correct the speakers.”

Second, instead of focusing on individuals involved with or linked to militant Islamist groups, police crackdowns have rounded up more than 11,000 political opponents. This is not just wrong, but also counter-productive—and no one is being fooled. The Bangladesh government might think the outside world sees this as a show of serious action, but it is a transparently reactionary move by a government with other goals in mind.

In this regard, the U.S. can and should offer to continue providing assistance in ensuring that Bangladesh law enforcement is fair, responsive, accurate, and proportional in its responses to terror attacks and pursuit of terror cells, and respectful of basic civil liberties.

— Faith in a representative, deliberative, pluralistic democracy must be restored. Those who traditionally support the ruling Awami League feel the party no longer cares about them, to say nothing of the feelings of the opposing Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Historically, the consequences of such a breakdown of trust in democratic institutions are disastrous. Hasina of all people should recognize this. Her legacy is clearly at risk.

Finally, during his visit, Kerry will reportedly meet with civil society representatives. While the Bangladesh government may not stand in defense of its citizens’ fundamental rights, Secretary Kerry should. Now is not the time for timidity, but courage and resolve.

More broadly, Kerry should remind Bangladesh officials of the benefits of a strong relationship between the U.S. and Bangladesh. At the most recent session of the UN Human Rights Council, Bangladesh sided with Saudi Arabia on a number of troubling human rights issues. Is this the way Bangladesh will turn—toward the repression and authoritarianism shown by Saudi Arabia—or do Bangladeshi citizens have reason for hope? Only the Bangladesh government can provide an answer to that question, but during his visit today, Secretary Kerry can at least put these questions on the table.