REMARKS BY U.S. AMBASSADOR PETER HAAS
Bangladesh Institute for International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) Seminar on
“Bangladesh and the United States Relations: Moving Towards Enhanced Cooperation and Partnership”
April 24, 2022
(Delivered as prepared)
The U.S.-Bangladesh relationship is at a turning point.
Over the past 50 years, we have built a robust relationship together, binding our cultures, peoples, and our economies. And the United States is ready to move as fast as Bangladesh wants to expand and deepen our ties.
But as we look to the future, we must recognize that our bilateral relationship will change.
The reason is simple: Bangladesh has changed.
Bangladesh is now one of the fastest growing economies in the Indo-Pacific. You are preparing for graduation from Least Developed Country status and racing ahead toward middle income status.
This change brings about a new dynamic. Simply put, the United States conducts diplomacy with major economies and with regional leaders differently.
As the relationship grows, the conversation broadens. Our governments recently held several important dialogues—the Partnership Dialogue, the Bilateral Security Dialogue, and other key engagements in Washington. In the coming weeks, we will hold two more: the Bilateral Defense Dialogue and the High-Level Economic Consultation.
Such conversations have—and will—identify opportunities to enhance our relationship. But our respective governments must decide whether and how to move beyond words into action.
Let me highlight three areas ripe for growth in our bilateral relationship: security, human rights and democracy, and economic ties.
First, we can increase our security cooperation.
We engage as peers in the defense sphere. We conduct several annual exercises. In fact, our respective special operations forces are currently participating in a joint exercise called Tiger Shark. We can strengthen these engagements by bringing in other like-minded mutual partners.
We can also move forward on two basic, foundational agreements.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement (or GSOMIA) would set ground rules for exchanging sensitive information about military procurements. This framework would enable Bangladesh to modernize its military with U.S. technology, contributing to Bangladesh’s Forces Goal 2030.
The Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (or ACSA) would allow our militaries to offer each other assistance on the high seas, to lend equipment or spare parts when an aircraft, vehicle, or vessel is in trouble, or to simply exchange fuel and food. An ACSA has a real-world impact on safety and interoperability, like when a vessel ends up stranded in the Port of Beirut after the 2020 explosion or during joint humanitarian relief efforts in the Bay of Bengal.
There are a lot of misperceptions about the GSOMIA and ACSA. They are technical agreements. They do not reflect an “alliance” or “military pact.” Nor do they constitute a broad and vague defense cooperation agreement, such as the one Bangladesh signed with China in 2002. They are simple building blocks to a closer relationship and to allow us to help your armed forces advance your own defense goals. And they are common. More than 70 countries have signed these agreements with us.
Regarding law enforcement, I will be honest. There is no scope for repeal of sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion without concrete action and accountability. We want to see a RAB that remains effective at combatting terrorism, but that does so while respecting basic human rights.
But RAB sanctions do not mean we cannot enhance our strong law enforcement security cooperation. We will continue to work with Bangladesh to combat transnational crime and terrorism, enhance border security, and prevent violent extremism.
We continue our support to Counterterrorism and Transnational Crime police, the Anti-Terrorism Unit, and the specialized units of the Metropolitan Police in Chattogram, Sylhet, and Rajshahi.
The signing of a proposed Memorandum of Agreement would facilitate our ability to implement our Anti-Terrorism Assistance training program and to donate new equipment to the police.
Second, we can work together to promote democracy and protect human rights.
The United States is not perfect. We have embarked on our own democratic renewal. This journey includes tackling our own issues with police accountability and ensuring all Americans can cast their ballots on election day. And we are inviting countries around the world to make similar commitments to strengthen their democracies.
I am pleased Foreign Minister Momen has stated that Bangladesh will welcome international observers during the next election. I also welcome the Law Minister’s commitment to reform the Digital Security Act to prevent further abuses.
Holding an election consistent with international standards is not just about the day votes are actually cast. In effect, the elections have already started. Truly democratic elections require the space for civic discourse to take place, an environment where journalists can investigate without fear, and the ability for civil society organizations to advocate broadly.
Let me be clear: the United States will not pick a side in the upcoming elections. We simply hope for a democratic process that allows the Bangladeshi people to freely decide who will run their country.
Third, the United States is ready to move our economic relationship forward.
Next month, I will welcome the inaugural visit of the Executive Committee of the U.S.-Bangladesh Business Council.
I am also proud to announce that the U.S. Embassy will welcome the first ever full-time attaché from the U.S. Department of Commerce this summer. This is a testament to the importance we place on growing our two-way trade and investment relationship.
As a middle-income country, Bangladesh will be competing on equal footing with major economies. Issues like intellectual property rights, supply chain efficiencies, access to quality higher education, and a transparent and inclusive business environment will become ever more important. How Bangladesh regulates internet activity will also impact foreign investment and the willingness of companies to do business in Bangladesh.
There are also new opportunities we can take advantage of together.
For instance, the newly established U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (or DFC) has a $4 billion active portfolio in South Asia across multiple sectors including clean energy, agriculture, healthcare, and banking.
Unfortunately, the DFC is unable operate in Bangladesh for the same reason Bangladesh is ineligible for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade benefit: a lack of labor rights.
The United States is committed to supporting Bangladesh’s labor rights journey, including through targeted development assistance. We actively promote freedom of association for Bangladeshi ready-made garment factory workers and their unions. We will also welcome a new attaché from the Department of Labor in the coming year, which will enhance our coordination on the ground.
The United States cannot do the hard work of enacting and enforcing laws that foster a transparent business environment. Nor can we meet the timelines laid out in the ILO Roadmap. These actions are up to Bangladesh. But we are ready to assist.
Our nations have built a solid foundation together over the last 50 years. Our people-to-people ties could not be stronger. Bangladeshi students prefer universities in the United States, and are the 14th largest group of international students in our country and the fastest growing group. A vibrant diaspora community and strong business links keep us closely interconnected.
But today, the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship is at a turning point. The United States is ready to hit the gas to enhance our partnership and realize the great potential of our relationship. We are ready to move as quickly as you are.