Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech about U.S.-Bangladesh relations

U.S. – Bangladesh Partnership

Press Availability in Dhaka, Bangladesh


Remarks by

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Edward M. Kennedy Center
Dhaka, Bangladesh
August 29, 2016


SECRETARY KERRY: Marcia, thank you very, very much. Join me, everybody, in expressing our gratitude – all of us – for the tremendous job that Ambassador Marcia Bernicat is doing here in Bangladesh. She has really been terrific.

And I was about to say thank you to her outstanding team, because we all know it is a team effort. And I’m going to have a chance to be able to meet with them a little later, but they work hard. We all work hard, I think, at trying to build the relationship between the United States and Bangladesh. And I am very, very grateful to all of you for being here this afternoon. Thank you very, very much. Thank you.

This is a very real personal privilege for me to come to Bangladesh and walk into the Edward M. Kennedy Center.  I know that Ted Kennedy holds a very special place in the history of Bangladesh and in the hearts of its people, of you. And the reasons for that are because he was very much a visionary and very clear about his support for the independence of your country back in 1971. And I knew Teddy for many, many years. I first met him when I was 18 years told, fresh out of high school, and I worked all summer – for free, I might add – to try to help get Ted Kennedy elected to the United States Senate in 1962. And it was his first race. He was running to fill the seat of President John F. Kennedy. His brother had just been elected president two years earlier.

And it was a great campaign. I learned a lot, enough to be able to get elected to the Senate not too many years later. And I never thought when I was doing that that I would one day become the junior senator, the junior colleague to Senator Ted Kennedy working in the Senate. We spent more than – just in to 29 years, a little less than that that I got to work with him. For the last few years he was gone. He had passed away. But it was a quarter of a century that I worked with him, and I am very honored to visit an institution that bears his name.

And I might add, I think at the time he and I were the longest-serving junior/senior team in the Senate. I thought I was going to be there forever like that.  And Strom Thurmond, who used to be the oldest act with Fritz Hollings, he lived to be a hundred years old. So I kept saying, okay, a hundred, that sounds pretty good, I’ll take that.

There are many, many reasons why I wanted to come to Dhaka and why I appreciate so deeply the gracious reception that I received. And I am particularly grateful to the prime minister. I had a very good discussion with her. But I want to emphasize that the culture of this country is really one of the world’s most rich and diverse and beautiful. It is truly shonar bangla, a “golden Bangla.”

And the prime minister and I had a very in-depth, thorough discussion – Foreign Minister Ali, other senior officials. And over the course of our discussions today, we had the opportunity to highlight how far Bangladesh has come in its four and a half decades since independence, and how much our countries now work together on everything from health care to education to regional and global security.

I want you to know that the United States is very proud to have been a partner in Bangladesh’s growth, and we welcome this nation’s participation in all three of President Obama’s signature development initiatives: health care, food security, and the all-encompassing issue of climate change.

Now, I know that at times there have been some who have felt a little tension regarding this relationship, and that came from 1971. But I am proud that not only did Senator Ted Kennedy support that, but as I said, I was just a young – in 1971 I was freshly out of college and just back from the war in Vietnam, and we were all supportive. Massachusetts was supportive of the struggle for independence in Bangladesh, and I’m very proud of that.

Now, we know that we are living in a very different and a very complicated time. The areas of the world most vulnerable to climate change are heavily populated, low-lying coastal regions that are also subject to devastating storms such as cyclones and hurricanes. This places Bangladesh near the very top of the countries at risk, with an estimated 15 million people who could be displaced by 2050. And that is why the United States, President Obama, myself, others are working so hard with local partners in order to try to create climate resiliency, to support renewable energy projects, build emergency centers, help with many millions of Bangladeshis who are economically dependent on coastal resources.

And as every one of you knows, the solution to climate change is not a secret. It’s right there for the grabbing. It’s energy policy. If you make the right energy policy choices, you solve the problem of climate change. Just today I talked with the prime minister and the foreign minister about the challenge of the Montreal Protocol and of being able to transition out of hydrofluorocarbons into the new technologies. And that alone will save us one half a degree centigrade in the warming of the Earth. So there are things we can do, and we need and want Bangladesh to be one of the countries that is at the top of the list of those who are fighting to make this transformation take place.

Now, the United States, I promise you, will do all that we can to assist Bangladesh on this issue in the future, just as we have stood by you in so many challenges in the past. Since this country won its independence, the United States has provided billions of dollars to help Bangladeshis train more teachers, to modernize transportation, to improve health care, to promote the rights of workers and women, and produce food more efficiently. Meanwhile, our bilateral commercial ties have expanded so that America is now Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, largest export market, and a primary source of foreign direct investment.

The $28 billion garment industry has played a uniquely important role in this rise, contributed to the annual sustained growth of your country at 6 percent. But growth in its own – growth just for its own sake is not our only goal. You can grow and grow and grow and grow, but you can be growing with the wrong values, you can be growing with the wrong outcomes, you can be growing with people not gaining in their rights or in their income or in their ability to get an education.

So growth alone is not the measurement of all that is happening. The Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen factory fire before it are just two of the more recent tragedies that underscore a fundamental truth: Bangladesh cannot truly meet the aspirations of its people and share prosperity if its workers are not safe and their rights are not ensured. That is critical.

And that is why the United States strongly supports efforts by government, by the private sector, by unions and the international agencies, in order to increase safety inspections, to close substandard factories, and make it easier for workers to be able to report violations without fear of retaliation.

But these steps are only part of the story. Enhancing worker safety has to be paired with strengthening workers’ rights. The fact is garment factories across Bangladesh actually could benefit enormously from empowering laborers, allowing them to form labor unions, affording them full collective bargaining rights, because no one should ever be compelled to work in hazardous or exploitative conditions. It’s really that simple.

Let me just share with you, when I – quite a few years ago, I lived in a community in Massachusetts in the northern part of the state called Lowell. And it had been built up. It was one of the first planned communities in America, and it was based on some of the Industrial Revolution and early development in England. But we had these huge, long factories along the river because the water was necessary to drive the mill, and they would produce textile and so forth.

And it was huge for America. But young kids were working in there sometimes, and they couldn’t leave and have a lunch break. They couldn’t go have a bathroom break. They’d work 16 hours. Until finally, the labor movement insisted on creating rights and better working conditions for those people.

And look at the United States of America today. We have grown to be the most powerful economy in the world. We are still the largest economy in the world. China is obviously growing. China has 1.3 billion people, so someday China will be a bigger economy. But we are still an economy of innovation, of creativity, an economy that gives people more rights, that allows young kids to be able to go to college, their parents do better and the next generation’s been able to do better. And it’s largely because we created the rights for workers and improved the working conditions, and we grew as a nation that understood that everybody benefits. And when everybody benefits, the nation does better. That’s the theory. We know this from our own experience. And so what we’re trying to do now is recognize it took a long time for this to happen. It wasn’t easy. Some of these changes have even happened in the last 15 years. And thanks to Senator Ted Kennedy and others, I was privileged to be there to vote for health care universally given to everybody in our country, and our country is stronger today because of it.

But we’re still fighting for things. So my message to you is don’t – don’t get mad because it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work and time. Building Bangladesh’s prosperity is important for its own sake, yes, and for the well-being of Bangladeshis, but there’s another reason as well. We all know that true prosperity is linked to a community’s sense of security, and that extremists thrive in places where people feel marginalized – economically, and marginalized politically, and that growth is much harder to achieve and to sustain in the face of violence. Money wants security. If you want to have foreign investors come and invest, you need security, but security also has to be built on the strength of your civil society and the strength of your people’s ability to be able to express their views and not feel as if the only place they can turn is to extremism in order to make a point.

Now, for each of these reasons, the United States will continue to work very closely with Bangladesh and with partners on every single continent in order to defeat vicious terrorist networks, particularly those of Daesh and al-Qaida. Here in Dhaka, the July 1st attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery was an outrage clearly designed to divide Bangladesh, designed to try to cut off this welcoming society from the outside world. Dozens of smaller-scale attacks have been carried out during the past several years, often directed at members of religious minorities, foreigners, bloggers, and security officials. And the reason for this is obviously they want to divide you, they want to push people apart, they want to create internal strife.

These heinous acts of violence, and too many others worldwide, are a stark, painful reminder that those who aid terrorist groups or perpetrate these acts have no respect for national boundaries, no concern for the rights of others, no regard for the rule of law, and they do not embody the values of the people of Bangladesh or the United States, or the majority of people across the globe. And it is important for us to make that statement.

In Iraq, Daesh kills people because of who they are. It kills Yezidis because they are Yezidis. It kills Shia because they are Shia. It kills Christian because they are Christian. It kills people because they aren’t who they are and who they want you and will force you to be. They attack culture. They attack history. And that is why I describe the fight against violent extremism as one of the world’s most important challenges. And it will take a generation or more to solve it, but let me tell you something: We are defeating Daesh and we will defeat Daesh. We will defeat al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, and we are on the road to achieving that now.

But we have to continue. It’s not just the battlefield; it’s the minds. And if we have too many young people who can’t go to school, or too many young people who are frustrated, or they can’t find a job – if we leave those minds out there for extremists to recruit, then it will continue and none of us would be doing our jobs if we allowed that to happen.

Remember this: No country is immune from terrorism. It’s easy to terrorize. Government and law enforcement have to be correct 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on.

The fact is we have to stand together, and the United States is standing with Bangladesh in this fight.

Now, just as important, we understand that to defeat terrorists, we have to uphold, not betray, the democratic principles that we cherish and they abhor. There may be no single answer to the question of why somebody becomes a terrorist – there are a lot of reasons. But make no mistake, democracy still provides the most resilient and the most reliable platform that we have for preventing and responding to violent extremism. Why? Because when individuals can address their grievances, when you have an opportunity to come together and speak and not fear that you’re going to go to jail, when you have an ability to be able to talk and argue and fight over an issue, build consensus about facts – that’s the way that civil society is able to flourish: when people can freely participate in public debate and are less vulnerable to being subverted by lies, by distortions, by a fake presentation of a peaceful religion, Islam.

So it’s important that people have a stake in building up their society, not being inspired to use violence to tear it down. Now some may argue that it’s more difficult to live up to the core values of democracy when countries face a genuine threat. And I understand that. But guess what? You can go in two directions. I believe that when a country faces those kinds of threats, it’s even more important to uphold the values of democracy. Because if you don’t, you will more quickly feed the frenzy that can come with opposition and panic and hysteria.

My friends, I will leave here today with a very renewed sense of faith in the future of the relationship between our countries. I have no doubt about it. And while I wish I could come and stay for longer, the press of the current conflicts and the business that we have makes it extremely difficult to stay anywhere very long. Just ask my kids and my wife. It’s hard. But the energy of your vibrant, dynamic society is something I can feel, it’s something I understand. Our ambassador, who does a terrific job, has told me about it. My assistant secretary, Nisha Biswal, keeps talking about it. And they’re right. I will leave here with a stronger belief in the importance of this partnership to both of our countries.

And I’m not sure that anyone would have predicted a decade ago that our countries would have been consulting closely on regional security, that Bangladesh would be using American cutters to patrol the Bay of Bengal, and that our shared agenda would include everything from counterterrorism to the environmental health and sustainability of our oceans, something we’re also working on together.

At the same time, it should be no surprise that the United States and Bangladesh are not just partners in pursuing a common interest, but we are friends, as well.  Back in 1971, when I was protesting a war and the men and women of this beautiful land were under murderous attack, some across the globe wanted to just look the other way. As I mentioned to you, there were a bunch of us in the younger generation who were involved in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the peace movement and the environment movement. It was a beginning of an extraordinary time of getting things done and putting new ideas and possibilities in front of our citizens. And one of the things that made me proud then was the way that Ted Kennedy stood up and fought for Bangladesh, and for what was happening here.

At that time, when the violence was at its height, Senator Kennedy flew to this region. He visited the camps where refugees were gathered. And he returned home to the United States Senate to bear witness to what he called, I quote, “a systematic campaign of terror.” Early the next year, Senator Kennedy returned, and he planted a banyan tree at Dhaka University to replace the majestic one that the rampaging soldiers had destroyed. In his remarks to students at that time, Kennedy didn’t focus on narrow economic or strategic interests. Instead, he spoke of the connections that are deeper and bigger, more universal. He said, the real foreign policy of America is not just government to government; it is citizen to citizen, friend to friend, people to people. Because in a sense, we are all Bangladeshis, we are all Americans. We all share in the great alliance of humanity.

The tree that my former Senate colleague planted remains a living symbol of the blood, sacrifice, and courage that brought this country into being. And it remains a symbol of the strength and of the friendship that the citizens of the United States and the people of Bangladesh share. It was to reinforce that friendship and to strengthen our bonds and our resolve to face the challenges now and in the future that I came to Dhaka today. And I look forward to working with all of you to accomplish that important mission to the benefit of Bangladesh, to the benefit of America. And if we do it right together, it will be to the benefit of the world.

Thank you very, very much.

MR TONER: We have time for a couple of questions. First question goes to Steve Herman of Voice of America.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Bangladesh Government insists that the increasingly sophisticated terrorist attacks that have been occurring here are primarily home grown. Analysts that my colleagues and I in the media have been speaking with recently beg to differ, and say that the Government of Bangladesh has its head in the sand about this. Do you agree, and is there anything concrete out of your visit here today towards enhancing the security relationship between Washington and Dhaka?

SECRETARY KERRY: The answer is yes. Well first of all, the answer is I don’t believe that the Government of Bangladesh has its head in the sand. I do not believe that. We had a very candid conversation. I met with the home minister, I met with the law minister, I met with obviously the prime – the foreign minister, and we talked very openly about this. And we made it very clear, as you have just said in your question, that there is evidence that ISIL in Iraq and Syria has contacts with about eight different entities around the world, and one of them is in South Asia. And they are connected to some degree with some of the operatives here, and we made that very clear in our conversation. There was no argument about it. I think when the minister says, “home grown,” it’s not a foreign fighter who’s coming in to do it, it’s somebody here who’s chosen to do it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t influenced by elsewhere – on the internet, social media, and so forth.

So the minister was very and the prime minister was very clear at the desire to cooperate with us very, very closely. We today agreed on additional steps by which our intelligence and law enforcement will work together in order to try to get ahead of this. And we talked about all aspects of it, including the importance of inclusivity, of working with people, of making sure that you protect the democratic process even as you come down tough on the perpetrators themselves. We think there’s much we can do to cooperate in that regard. We work already with the Bangladeshi police on community policing projects – now we’re doing that; with madrasah students to increase economic opportunities for vulnerable youth; with community leaders on conflict mitigation. So I’m confident that our assistance to Bangladesh will increasingly be designed to help the government address terrorism threats from domestic and transnational organizations. That’s the nature of the beast that we are dealing with today. And I am absolutely confident that we will build additional capacity and that it will be effective.

MR TONER: Our second question, and last question, goes to Raheed Ejaz from Prothom Alo.


QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, welcome for your first visit in Bangladesh. As you mentioned that we are dwelling in a very complicated world today and you mentioned on the upheld democratic values and other thing. While you came here, do you have any precise plan to discuss with the government officials here on the peace and stability and upholding democratic culture in the – not only in the Bangladesh, also in the Bay of Bengal, and want to see Bangladesh to take the permanent role here? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, yes, we did. We talked about it in very broad terms. And we also talked it in some specific terms. As you know, we are providing, as I mentioned in my opening comments, cutters, which are being used for the patrolling of the Bay of Bengal, and we are convinced that there are a number of grassroots projects that we can engage in together that will help us to counter violent extremism. Prime minister will be taking part with President Obama at the UN in the refugee summit, and Bangladesh will be an important contributor to that dialogue.

So I would just say to you that, not just with respect to the Bay of Bengal, but in all aspects, we have an extremely open and broad engagement with Bangladesh at this point in time. And the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund is a new project in order to help with these supporting grassroots efforts to increase communities’ ability to push back against extremism. Bangladesh is a pilot participant in that effort. So I think people can have confidence that, as a result of this visit today, we are going to follow up in a number of different ways that Assistant Secretary Biswal and the rest of our team have agreed are necessary over the days ahead. So I think you’ll see more activity and more engagement, and perhaps in the course of that, more presence.

And I think our conversation regarding the nature of Daesh, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, countless groups around the world – the nature of that conversation makes it clear that no nation can succeed without all of us sharing information, sharing best practices, sharing creative new techniques and approaches. The most – one of the most important weapons in this effort is communication between us. And as you know, the United States helped put together, and is leading, a coalition of 67 countries now that are all focused on dealing with violent extremism and fighting back against Daesh and these other entities.

We have made significant progress. More and more now, I’m beginning to read the stories of how Daesh is feeling the pressure, people are escaping to get out and go back home or wherever. Now, that helps us solve the problem in Syria and Iraq, but it leaves us with a problem in these other countries where people go back to, or where the social media and propaganda of the group reaches out to. So our job is to fight on every front: on the financing front, the foreign fighter front, the communications front, the counter-messaging front, and particularly on the prevention front initially, so that education, jobs, fairness, transparency, accountability in society – all of those things are helping to give young people a sense of a possibility of a future, not a sense of futility and despair and frustration. That’s a huge differential in the fight against recruitment. And good governance, which all of you can demand, is as important as any other step that we take in this fight against violent extremism.

So on that, I thank you. I am – again, apologize. It’s not a long visit, but I’ll tell you what, it’s a good visit and I really appreciate everybody’s generous welcome. Thank you.


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