Reactions to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s May 24 announcement of a new visa policy to promote democratic elections in Bangladesh have fallen along predictable lines. The ruling Awami League and its supporters have dismissed the significance of the action, claiming this will simply support Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to holding free elections and warning that the visa restrictions would also apply to opposition activists engaging in violence at poll time. Critics of the regime have interpreted the new policy as a sign that the U.S. has shifted its support to the opposition and see it as a step towards the restoration of the previously abandoned Caretaker Government system. For its part, the U.S. State Department and Embassy Dhaka have attempted to strike a balance between these two extremes, focusing on the importance of ensuring free and fair elections. Reactions from other international partners has thus far been muted, with many taking a wait and see approach.
As with any policy, the ultimate success of the new U.S. visa regime will depend on implementation. The first challenge for those seeking to implement the new policy relates to the ability of the U.S. Government to gather sufficient evidence to inform decisions about visa restrictions. It will be a daunting task for the handful of staff at the U.S. Embassy to investigate and evaluate incidences of political violence and intimidation in the run up to the polls. The challenges of traveling throughout the country, security considerations, language barriers and the sheer number of people involved will complicate this task. As with the compilation of the U.S.’ annual human rights report, ultimately American officials will need to depend upon a network of civil society activists, journalists, and human rights defenders to help gather evidence to support visa decisions. At the same time, Embassy Dhaka will likely be inundated with claims and counter claims from the political parties, each of which will seek to shape U.S. actions to further their agendas. The competing claims about recent political violence in Keraniganj illustrate how difficult it will be to determine culpability.
Additionally, it also remains to be seen what standards of evidence will be required by State Department lawyers and policy makers and how labor intensive the decision-making process will be. Given bureaucratic realities, it is most likely that policy makers will be selective in applying restrictions, as has been the case with other sanctions regimes. A good deal of thought will need to go into decision making to ensure that visa restrictions are supported by evidence and meet the criteria established in the policy and underlying law. It also remains to be seen how long the bureaucratic process will take, given competing demands on those involved in its implementation.
Finally, the true test of the success of this policy is whether it contributes to efforts to promote greater political freedom and a better electoral environment. For this to be the case, it will need to influence decision making both by those who are calling the shots in the government and opposition parties and those tasked with implementing their directives. For those most invested in maintaining the status quo, it is unlikely that the prospect of a U.S. visa revocation alone will suffice for them to change their ways. Still, the threat of sanctions is real and will be compounded by potential impacts on immediate family members who will see their travel options limited. This would become even more significant if other like-minded countries (the UK, Canada, Australia, etc.) were to follow suit. Those with the most to lose would include senior levels of the security forces, law enforcement agencies, civil service, and business community who would be loath to see their (and their family members) unable to travel abroad. If the pillars that support those at the top of the government and opposition start to weaken, then the prospects for real change will be likewise enhanced.
Despite the challenges outlined above, on balance the new U.S. visa policy is a welcome move and a sign that it won’t be business as usual this election cycle. It is also significant that the Biden Administration moved forward with its new policy despite likely protests from New Delhi. In the past, India exercised a virtual veto over U.S. policy in Bangladesh by virtue of Washington’s deference to New Delhi on issues in its neighborhood. While the Biden Administration has continued efforts to strengthen ties with India, it has also signaled a willingness to “agree to disagree” when it comes to Bangladesh. It is now time for other bilateral and multilateral partners to demonstrate their commitment to supporting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.