The announcement of a new visa policy by the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken for Bangladesh on May 24 provides the Biden administration “the ability to take action” and to send “signal to the people of Bangladesh that we back free and fair elections and are ready to take action”.
This is how State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller characterized the new policy that has been pursued to promote free, fair and participatory elections in the South Asian country.
Though Sheikh Hasina presided over two rigged and controversial elections in Bangladesh in 2014 and 2018, she never ceased to ‘advocate’ for free and fair elections.
Responding to a question of the South Asia Perspectives correspondent at the State Department Press Briefing, Miller said, “I think what we will say is Prime Minister Hasina has committed to supporting free and fair elections. We share her support for free and fair elections, and the policy that we announced today is designed to support those efforts, as well as the efforts of the Bangladeshi people to having elections where the Bangladeshi people can choose their leaders. And I will say lastly, as friends, we have expressed our concerns where we see actions that undermine democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.”
Earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the new move saying, “Today, I am announcing a new visa policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) (“3C”) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections.”,
He said, “Under this policy, the United States will be able to restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. This includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services. The United States notified the Bangladeshi government of this decision on May 3, 2023.”
“Actions that undermine the democratic election process include vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.”The statement added, “The holding of free and fair elections is the responsibility of everyone—voters, political parties, the government, the security forces, civil society, and the media. I am announcing this policy to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh.”
Following the announcement, US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, in an interview with a Bangladeshi TV host Zillur Rahman, clarified that the new policy will be applied equally to the wrongdoers in the field and those who will give orders.
“These restrictions will apply both to those giving orders and taking orders. For those who are taking orders and carry out acts of violence or voter intimidation or vote rigging they would be ineligible for US visas. At the same time those who are giving orders, those individuals will not be allowed to travel to the United States either”, Lu told Zillur Rahman in his show titled Tritiyo Matra.
The US Assistant Secretary of State also said that this policy will apply equally to the members of the ruling and opposition parties.
The new policy allows the US government “to restrict travel to the US for anyone who has committed abuses in one of four areas: voter intimidation, vote rigging, denial of free speech or freedom of assembly, and violence that seeks to undermine free and fair elections”, Lu explained.
Lu said that the promotion of democracy around the world “is a central tenet of the Biden-Harris administration and they believe Bangladesh is a true democracy that deserves to have free and fair elections”.
He also said this is a forward-looking policy, meaning that their hope is that this policy will help to prevent violence and promote a free and fair election this coming year in Bangladesh. “We take that responsibility very seriously and we don’t plan to look backwards.”