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A few days ago, the US treasury department put sanctions on seven officers of Bangladesh police and the RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) on the basis of human rights abuses allegations.

The government of Bangladesh has come forward strongly in the defense of those aforementioned officers. For instance, the interior minister, minister for foreign affairs, and the minister for information spoke in favor of those officers and abused the US government's policy. The foreign office also asked the US ambassador to explain the decision of the US government.

I am a little bit confused about that.

When human rights abuse takes place in a country, it takes place under the watch of the sitting government. Therefore, the government of Bangladesh should have been asked to explain the actions of the aforementioned law enforcement officers.

Why has the US government sanctioned law enforcement officers of Bangladesh rather than asking for clarification from the government of Bangladesh about the actions of those officers?

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    I don't know anything about this. Perhaps other readers are similarly unaware. Are you certain that the US didn't in fact precede its sanctions with a request for clarification? Can you give, or at least link to, some background? What abuses are alleged? What evidence is claimed in support of the allegations?
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 13:10

2 Answers 2

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This type of sanctions against individuals and companies, rather than against top government officials and/or the whole country is common with the US. Coming to mind:

  • a number of Russian persons and companies have sanctions concerning their conduct in Ukraine. Putin and Russia do not, or at least things didn't start out with Russia-wide sanctions.

WASHINGTON — Today, on International Human Rights Day, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is designating 15 individuals and 10 entities for their connection to human rights abuse and repression in several countries around the globe, pursuant to multiple sanctions authorities. Separately, OFAC is also imposing investment restrictions on one company in connection with the surveillance technology sector of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) economy, highlighting the human rights abuse enabled by the malign use of technology. Human Rights Day is observed annually on December 10, which marks the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. That declaration enumerates the fundamental human rights of freedoms of expression, religion or belief, association, and peaceful assembly, and the right to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy.

  • a number of Chinese persons and companies have similar sanctions wrt Uyghurs and Hong Kong. Xi and China do not.

  • Ditto with Saudi Arabian officials involved in Khasogghi's murder. MBS and Saudi Arabia do not.

Cases of whole country sanctions like with Cuba, NK and Iran are the exception rather than the rule and they tend to torpedo chances at diplomacy.

Putting individuals on notice is a step short of that but still serves to:

  • express official displeasure at the acts in question

  • (slightly) deter officials carrying out those acts. The lower down the ladder, the less they are likely to be affected.

  • (possibly more so) deter higher ups from issuing those orders. The more powerful people are, the more they tend to like moving around the world and access Western perks. At some levels, like Carrie Lam in HK, the poor lady couldn't use credit cards easily at some point.

  • against companies, they can be devastating. Huawei's share of world mobile phone market has collapsed and they cannot access recent-generation mobile CPUs.

Additionally, from the issuing country's POV, the US in this case, this type of low-level sniping is likely to face less opposition than a full on embargo which will have a domestic lobby of exporters to contend with.

It's also a face-saving of sorts against the targeted country: "you're not all bad, but these guys are". But rest assured, these are not friendly acts and they are reprimands against the targeted country.

Not only the US does this, the EU does as well:

European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to impose sanctions on top Russian officials following the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a decision that was hastened by a tense trip to Moscow by the chief E.U. diplomat earlier this month.

....

The asset freeze and travel ban was intended to send a message to the Kremlin after Navalny was sentenced to 2½ years in prison this month, E.U. diplomats said.

...

He said the sanctions would target officials responsible for Navalny’s detention and prosecution. Although the final list is subject to confirmation, E.U. officials plan to target two prosecutorial officials, the head of Russia’s national guard and the head of Russia’s prison service, diplomats said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

Typically, diplomatic pressure mounts in carefully calibrated choreography:

  • "we are concerned about X in country Y"
  • "we strongly condemn X"
  • "Y's citizens and companies implicated with X are now subject to sanctions"
  • temporary ambassador recalls
  • sanctions on Y
  • war with Y.
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  • +1 for good answer. May be the other issue is creditable evidence of direct involvement of politicians in ordering abuse or violation of international law because law enforcement agencies may be working independently / state-provienc wise. Unless there is clear evidence of involvement of state it's often difficult to blame governments and to impose sanctions against whole nation I think. Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 7:49
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We actually have the official reasoning in EO 13818. "The United States seeks to impose tangible and significant consequences on those who commit serious human rights abuse or engage in corruption [...]."

There are three levels to this question:

  • Individuals are responsible if they violate human rights.
    The Nuremberg Trials clarified that "just following orders" is no excuse for individuals involved in gross human rights violations. When the perpetrators are captured, they can face trial as individuals. The US Treasury Department is not a court, however, and their sanctions list is not a sentence.
    Visiting a foreign country (or doing business with it) is a privilege, not a right. The US government can restrict US companies from doing business abroad if that is in the national interest of the United States. It can also refuse visa applications from people it doesn't like.
    So technically the US government isn't punishing foreign citizens, it is punishing US citizens and residents who do business with those designated individuals.

  • Sanctions do not have to target entire nations.
    The next issue is the question if sanctions should be aimed at an entire nation or at individuals within those nations. The track record of sanctions is rather mixed, and often they hit common people who cannot directly influence government policy. So targeted sanctions are becoming more common.
    Do you think the US should have sanctioned all citizens of Bangladesh because the government of Bangladesh did not put those six on trial?

  • Naming individuals has deterrence reasons, not just practical ones.
    The third question is why the perpetrators would be named in a press release. One reason is that US companies need to know when they are no longer allowed to do business with some foreigners, so the government must tell. The other reason is to put public pressure on the perpetrators and to deter others from doing the same.

Summary: Technically, those RAB members are not being punished. They and the rest of the world are being put on notice that the US disapproves of their actions, and will not grant them any privileges they don't deserve (according to the US ...).

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  • This doesn't answer my main question. The persons who perpetrated those human rights abuses, work under the BD government. So, the main answerable party is the BD government. In this sanction, the BD government and the people at the helm are spared. Note that government is not synonymous with the entire population of a country.
    – user366312
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 13:45
  • @user366312, I think I did. The US wants other RAB officials to think about the wisdom of their career track.
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 14:07
  • You are bypassing my main question once again.
    – user366312
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 14:23
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    @JamesK, we actually have the official reasoning in EO 13818. "The United States seeks to impose tangible and significant consequences on those who commit serious human rights abuse or engage in corruption, as well as to protect the financial system of the United States from abuse by these same persons." The OP seems to consider it appropriate to start this process at the top of the government. The US doesn't necessarily do so.
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 15:17
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    @user366312, are you aware of any US regulation which requires them to start with sanctions at the top? If not, why do you expect them to do so?
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 15:20

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