The EU underscores the transformative power of mutual respect and a shared commitment to universal human rights, which can serve as a catalyst to overcome controversies and bolster the partnership with Bangladesh
The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Joseph Borrell Fontelles, has recently highlighted the positive progress in the EU-Bangladesh partnership. This acknowledgment comes amid concerns expressed by six members of the European Parliament regarding the twelfth election, human rights, and the political situation in Bangladesh.
The mentioned letter of concern was submitted by MEPs of the European Parliament, including Ivan Stefanek (Slovak Republic), Michaela Sojdrova (Czech Republic), Andrey Kovatchev (EPP, Bulgaria), Karen Melchior (Denmark), Javier Nart (Spain), and Heidi Hautala (Finland).
False allegations or genuine concerns
Amnesty International have alleged that thousands of military members were executed during President Zia’s five and a half years in power
In response to the letter, 321 expatriates living in Europe, representing various professions such as scientists, teachers, researchers, journalists, businessmen, and employees, have expressed their reservations on behalf of “Bangladesh Civil Society in Europe.” They believe that the letter was based on inaccurate information and aimed at tarnishing the image of Bangladesh globally. Consequently, these expatriates expressed their dissent by sending a letter of protest to six Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and the Vice-President of the EU Parliament, Joseph Borrell, on June 29th.
The group of expatriates contends that the six MEPs lack adequate knowledge and experience regarding the political landscape and current situation in Bangladesh. They suggest that these MEPs intentionally penned the letter without being members of the EU Parliament’s delegation for relations with South Asian countries.
Moreover, the expatriates cited historical incidents of concern, pointing to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances that began during the tenure of BNP founder Major General Ziaur Rahman following the assassination of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members on August 15, 1975. Reports from Amnesty International have alleged that thousands of military members were executed during President Zia’s five and a half years in power. The subsequent BNP-Jamaat regime, led by former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia in 1991-1996 and 2001-2006, has also been accused of perpetuating acts of torture, kidnapping, abduction, and violence against opposition leaders and activists, journalists, as well as minority communities, including Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and the Indigenous community.
In the same letter, the group of expatriates expressed the importance of carefully verifying the rule of law and human rights during the rule of BNP-Jamaat.
According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International (TI), Bangladesh was ranked as the world champion in corruption five times in a row from 2001 to 2006 due to widespread corruption and money laundering under the BNP-led government.
During this period, Bangladesh also witnessed the rise of deadly Islamic Militancy, with Jamatul Mujahidin (JMB) allegedly being patronized by the ruling parties.
Furthermore, they mentioned that the law enforcement agency, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), was formed on 12 July 2004 during the regime of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. They pointed out that thousands of Awami League leaders, activists, and members of religious minority communities were tortured and killed by BNP-Jamaat supporters and state machinery between 2001 and 2006, causing immense suffering for the people of Bangladesh.
BNP-Jamaat reign of terror
Regarding the 10th National Assembly elections in 2014, they stated that the BNP-Jamaat alliance established a reign of terror to prevent the elections, resulting in vandalism, torching of vehicles, houses, and educational institutions. The violence led to the death of 200 people, including 20 law enforcement officers, through petrol bombs, handmade bombs, and other acts of violence. However, they also noted that the BNP-Jamaat-led coalition participated in the 2018 11th National Assembly elections, where all other political parties also participated, and the allegation of ‘midnight elections’ was deemed to be a work of rumour and misinformation with no substantiation.
In response to the expatriates’ letter, HE Rensje Teerink, the Head of the EU Delegation to Bangladesh at the European External Action Service, wrote on behalf of Mr. Borrell to the coordinator of “Bangladesh Civil Society in Europe,” Dr. Mazharul Islam Rana. She acknowledged the concerns of the civil society of Bangladesh regarding the letter sent by the 6 MEPs and its impact on tarnishing the positive image of Bangladesh. However, she clarified that it was beyond her scope to interfere with any letter sent by Members of the European Parliament, as they have the full democratic right to express their opinions on any subject they find necessary.
Regarding the situation in Bangladesh, HE Rensje Teerink reassured that the EU-Bangladesh partnership is gaining positive momentum, and the European Union has deepened its cooperation with Bangladesh in various areas. On matters concerning human rights and other priorities of Bangladesh, she emphasized that the European Union and its Member States would continue to engage closely with the government and civil society in Bangladesh. This indicates the EU’s commitment to maintaining an open dialogue and working towards mutual goals with Bangladesh while keeping human rights and governance issues in focus.
The EU-Bangladesh relation in a nutshell
The EU-Bangladesh partnership has strengthened over the years, evident from their regular joint commission meetings where they discuss a wide range of common interests, including governance, democracy, human rights, economic and trade cooperation, migration, climate change, and regional cooperation.
Despite ongoing debates over human rights, the EU’s reassurance of a positive relationship and commitment to engage closely with Bangladesh sends a strong message. It highlights the potential for mutual respect and shared commitment to universal human rights to overcome controversies and strengthen the partnership.
The EU-Bangladesh cooperation agreement signed in 2001 laid the foundation for trade relations. The Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative provided Bangladesh with duty-free access to the EU market, making the EU Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, accounting for 24 percent of Bangladesh’s total trade. Clothing constitutes 90 percent of Bangladesh’s exports to the EU, while EU exports mostly consist of machinery and transport equipment.
The EU has campaigned to improve labor conditions, democracy, and freedom of expression in Bangladesh. In 2013, Bangladesh signed the Sustainability Compact with the EU to strengthen labor conditions in the country. The EU has also promoted the abolition of the death penalty in Bangladesh. The Everything But Arms scheme is expected to end in 2021, and Bangladesh is predicted to graduate to the developing country bracket.