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Lu says in interview with Star: there were no fresh sanctions as Rab made progress; labour rights ensured will mean GSP reinstated

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There was a lot of interest in US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu’s visit to Dhaka. Before leaving early yesterday, he held a series of meetings with the top ministers, labour rights, and civil society leaders. What were the discussions and outcomes? 
Lu shared with Porimol Palma in detail.

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TDS: After landing, you directly went to the foreign minister’s home and met him over dinner. What did you discuss?

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Lu: I was really honoured to be welcomed by the foreign minister right off of the aeroplane. It was a very frank discussion.

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We all agreed that we could work a little harder to prevent misperceptions on both sides, but work harder to focus on the future of our relationship.

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There’s a lot that we’re doing. Trade, investment, security, climate change. We have a lot of hard work going forward. I was very clear the US is going to continue to value democracy and human rights in this country. That it’s important that when friends have concerns or questions that we’re raising. But I think we can do that in a friendly environment. I certainly see on the part of the minister a desire to make this a constructive relationship.

TDS: In Washington, you had expressed concerns over the security of your ambassador over an incident on December 14 in Dhaka. Did you raise that issue in Dhaka? Has the issue been settled?

Lu: I have to say, we take very seriously the security of your Bangladeshi diplomats in the US. We spend a lot of time making sure that they are safe and well taken care of. We expect the same from the government of Bangladesh. I was given assurances from everyone we met, including the home minister, that they are very focused on the security of our team.

TDS: There was a rumour that more sanctions were coming. Is it so?

Lu: I hope not. Normally, we impose sanctions on the anniversary [December 10]. We would have designated more individuals from the Rab to face individual sanctions. We didn’t do that because we recognise the progress being made by the government and by the Rab itself to reform. We would like to see more reforms, but we mean to encourage this process going forward … [ so that] they are an effective law enforcement unit  without human rights violations.

TDS: What more did you discuss on sanctions?

Lu: We have seen over the last year a dramatic reduction in the number of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. This is extraordinary and something that should be celebrated. There was a killing in November. It is Shaheen Mia. Immediately, the government appointed a magistrate to investigate the incident. This is important to show that Rab is going to be held accountable. In fact, you have structures in place to make sure that nothing inappropriate is being done. I encourage the government to report on such cases. This is a sign that Rab can function in a way that all Bangladeshi should be proud of. We want to encourage Rab to continue the progress. I have heard from the government that they’re very interested in making reforms.

TDS: You have reiterated your commitment to democracy and free, fair and participatory elections. What was the feedback?

Lu: Well, let me say the main focus of my visit is to show that the US is a reliable partner and that we share the vision of Bangladeshi people for a stronger democracy, more prosperity and stability in this important country. Bangladesh is an important democracy in South Asia. Like all of us, Bangladesh has an imperfect democracy. I hope Bangladesh will be working hard to make sure that as it moves towards elections, they’re focused on the ability of the government and opposition to work peacefully together, to protect freedom of assembly so people can gather peacefully, but also freedom of speech. As Americans, we’ll condemn violence where we see it — if it’s on the part of opposition or the part of government and security forces. At the same time, we are going to focus on whether there’s intimidation during these elections, and if either side attempts to intimidate the voters or the leaders, we will say so publicly. I think it’s important as democracies that we provide that sort of feedback and really encourage each other to be better democracies. I have every confidence that Bangladesh will be able to rise to the occasion and have a good election.

TDS: What was the feedback?

Lu: Well, everyone I talked to pointed to the prime minister’s commitment to free and fair elections without violence or intimidation. And so that’s what we would like as well. I hope there will be that same commitment on the part of the opposition.

TDS: Bangladesh wants the GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) facility back and funding under the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) but both are tied to labour reforms. How can you help here?

Lu: The US is the number one destination for exports from Bangladesh. So, labour rights are really important for you and the US as a consumer. We could provide technical assistance in terms of labour laws including the EPZ law. We are willing to support Bangladesh in improving the process of trade unions’ registration. There are some unions that have tried to register but were unable. Improving labour rights means your reputation going up. It can also open the door to new financing from the DFC and the GSP reinstated.

TDS: Recently, a Russian ship with equipment for the nuclear power plant in Bangladesh was redirected to India because the ship was sanctioned. What is the magic that it could be unloaded in India and not in Bangladesh?

Lu: Let me broaden the question. The US does not ask Bangladesh or anyone else to choose between Russia and the US, or China and the US. We want to compete and show that we are a reliable and constructive partner for Bangladesh. We want Bangladesh to see value in our relationship. This is important for us. The war in Ukraine has caused some very unfortunate consequences for Bangladeshis, Americans, and certainly for Ukrainians. We see high energy prices, and high food prices. So, the international community has imposed some sanctions on Russia. The point is to prevent Vladimir Putin and his military from gaining more money and power for them to use in the war. It is not to punish Bangladeshi people. And, we are talking to the Bangladesh government about how to minimise the effects of these sanctions on Bangladeshi people. About the ship. I would just pray that Bangladesh can avoid secondary sanctions. The sanctions oriented at Moscow may become a bilateral issue for us or cause problems for Bangladeshi businesspeople who might take things off of ships that were under sanction. I’ve had long discussions with our Indian partners about these very same issues and we’re working through them.

TDS: Dhaka has said that foreign diplomats speaking about Bangladesh’s elections and politics violates the Vienna Convention. How do you respond?

Lu: I have been in government service for 33 years. In all the places we served, we encourage our partners to live up to their democratic values. That’s just what means to be an American diplomat. It’s not something specific to Bangladesh or South Asia. It is because we believe that our partnership is stronger when your democracy is stronger; when people have the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. I believe this is what Bangladesh wants as well. We, Americans, have our own problems with democracy, but I am proud that our two countries can talk about these issues openly. We will also welcome support for improving our democracy.

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