Biden’s Democracy Summit is unlikely to even earn a footnote in the history books of future,” is how Times of India’s columnist and BJP Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta blasted the much-vaunted US-sponsored Democracy Summit held virtually last week. Dasgupta was however quick to clarify that the failed summit, an ostentatious display of US pretensions, has nothing to do with the global appeal of democracy as a political system. The popularity of any political or social or economic system lies in its success to both deliver stated goals and prevent deviation from the essential ideals holding together the system. In short, much depends on how the lofty ideals are implemented, not in the tall talk which is often the hallmark of leaders, especially of the populist variety.

The US has historically promoted many dictatorships in pursuit of its strategic goals, during the Cold War and after. South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan — the list is long. Closer home, the American intelligence has been notorious for backing ruthless bloodthirsty dictators from Nicaragua to Chile, turning whole countries into open prisons, all justified in the battle against Communism. Biden recently abandoned Afghanistan to an Islamist autocracy that is ruthlessly oppressing women, dissidents and minorities. It is in the process of finalising a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia, ruled by a perverse monarchy, which sends spies to kill dissidents, limb by limb.
Some top officials in US intelligence, including former CIA chief Gina Haspel, attracted huge controversies, by their record of ruthless torture. Haspel was the first woman chief of CIA, confirmed in the post by president Donald Trump in May 2018. Haspel has attracted controversy for her role as chief of a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002 in which prisoners were tortured with so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including waterboarding.

At that time, the Bush Administration considered the techniques legal based on a set of secret, now-rescinded legal opinions which expansively defined executive authority and narrowly defined torture. Haspel’s involvement in torture was confirmed in August 2018 when a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive brought to light CIA cables either authorised by or written by Haspel while base chief at the Thailand black site. The cables describe acts of deliberate physical torture of detainees, including waterboarding and confinement.

And now the US, after the Democracy Summit which Time magazine described as the “height of political hypocrisy”, is going about sanctioning foreign law enforcement officials including some in Bangladesh, blaming them for extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances. But on that point, later.

According to the State Department, the goal of the Democracy Summit is to “provide a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.” The online forum, it says, will solicit “bold, practicable ideas” on the themes of “defending against authoritarianism,” “fighting corruption,” and “promoting respect for human rights.”   Its own democracy was severely threatened during the last presidential elections, when Donald Trump conspired to deny Biden office, conspired to delay the poll certification process and unleashed republican thugs to vandalise statues near the White House. A worried Biden may do all to put the American house in order before lecturing the world on democracy.

Many say there is no explanation from the Biden administration about the inclusion of some countries in the Democracy Summit. Thirty out of the 110 invited are nations described by the nonprofit and prestigious watchdog FREEDOM HOUSE as “only partially free.” Three are “not free” at all—Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq. More than a dozen of the countries invited are classified by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute as “electoral autocracies”, including the Philippines and Kenya. The height of irony is Biden considers Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, the champion of extrajudicial executions, a democrat! The US needs Filipino naval bases. Doesn’t it!

Pakistan, a country known for sponsoring terror as state policy and severe internal repression against ethnic and religious minorities like Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhis, was also invited, perhaps because Washington still values Islamabad for strategic reasons. But the Imran Khan government did not attend, largely to satisfy “iron brother” China and partly because Biden has denied Khan a face-to-face chat.

Inviting the Philippines and not Bangladesh will be seen by many as a joke.  But it is not, and Dhaka has good reasons to worry because both denial of invitation to Bangladesh at the Democracy Summit and the immediate follow-up action of sanctions against seven top security officials point to a political agenda.

Among the most high-level officials who were placed under Global Magnitsky human rights-related sanctions by the US Department of Treasury is the current inspector-general of police and former director-general of RAB, Benazir Ahmed. Current RAB Director General Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun, ADG (Operations) Khan Mohammad Azad, former ADG (Operations) Tofayel Mustafa Sorwar, Mohammad Jahangir Alam, and Mohammad Anwar Latif Khan have also been put under the same sanctions. Benazir and a former official of RAB, Lieutenant Colonel Miftah Uddin Ahmed have also been barred from travelling to the US.

“We are determined to put human rights at the centre of our foreign policy, and we reaffirm this commitment by using appropriate tools and authorities to draw attention to and promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in justification of the move.

Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen summoned the US ambassador, Earl Miller, “to convey Dhaka’s discontent” over the decision. Momen “regretted that the US decided to undermine an agency of the government that had been on the forefront of combating terrorism, drug trafficking and other heinous transnational crimes that were considered to be shared priorities with successive US administrations”.

One of the sanctioned individuals, RAB deputy chief KM Azad, defended the force’s operations, saying it never violates human rights. “If bringing down a criminal under the law is a violation of human rights, then we have no objection to violating this human rights in the interest of the country,” he said.

 

Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan also commented on the move, saying: “The US has not imposed the sanctions fairly. They did it based on exaggerated news. Maintaining law and order is a challenging task in Bangladesh.” He added, “Drug peddlers use firearms for self-defence that leads to gunfights with the members of law enforcement agencies, causing casualties.”

From my security sources in India and Bangladesh, I have learnt that the real reason for the US move was strategic. It has been pressing Bangladesh for allowing its navy to use the submarine base in the Kutubdia channel and set up listening posts in different parts of the country.

The pressure has been severe, to the extent it alerted the Chinese and made them send their Defence Minister Wei Fenghe rush to Dhaka at the peak of the COVID pandemic in Bangladesh in April 2021 to warn Dhaka against “joining the Quad.” A month later in May, the Chinese ambassador in Dhaka, Li Jiming warned Bangladesh about “considerable damage to bilateral relations if it joined Quad.”  Beijing is Bangladesh’s biggest source of infrastructure finance with projects worth more than $30 billion now underway in the country.

The Sheikh Hasina government prioritises infrastructure development as part of its fast-paced economic growth strategy but that did not prevent its Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen from reminding the Chinese that “we are a sovereign and independent nation and we decide our foreign policy.”

But that does not please Uncle Sam. With Myanmar lost to China and Beijing developing a string of naval bases in Hainggyi, Mergui and Coco Islands, the US is keen to counterbalance with some meaningful naval presence in Bangladesh. Denial of the bases it wanted has upset Washington. In private talks, US officials have been warning strategic ally India that Bangladesh is drifting far too sharply towards China. The Indians know Hasina better and trust the Americans even less after their rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan without keeping Delhi in the loop. Last week, there was much satisfaction in Delhi when Pakistan refused to attend the Democracy Summit. “Washington should now know who is how close to China,” a senior official said.

What worries Delhi more is a possible move by Washington to unsettle the Hasina regime which India cannot afford after the debacle in Afghanistan. The push for “regional stability” highlighted in the joint communiqué after the Vladimir Putin-Narendra Modi summit is significant. History seems to be repeating itself 50 years after the Indo-Soviet military and diplomatic intervention paved the way for the liberation of Bangladesh. I only hope 1975 is not repeated.

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