THE BLOG

Bangladesh Should Be a UK Foreign Policy Priority for Hammond

24/07/2014 16:29 BST | Updated 23/09/2014 10:59 BST

As the new foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond no doubt has a busy in-tray. The current chaos in Gaza and Iraq will be immediate priorities, but the need to adopt a more long-term strategic approach where we guide and help countries away from danger should be the main strategic priority. Without this long-term view British foreign policy remains mired in a state of confusion.

Reinvigorating one of the great offices of state will require a fresh look at how we exert global influence and how we identify early warning signs where countries with close links to the UK are heading towards trouble. Bangladesh is one such country and should be a high priority for Hammond.

This may come as a surprise to some people. After all, Bangladesh is a democracy that has just conducted an election. It is also not one of those countries that appears on our TV screens accompanied by images of burning cars and grieving families. But scratch beneath the surface and there are real and mounting causes for concern.

To understand why, you need to go back to the formation of the country. Bangladesh was born through a bloody war of independence in 1971 against Pakistan. The scars of this war still haunt the country today and are embodied in the country's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) set up to investigate atrocities committed during the war. The scale of these atrocities should not be downplayed. Estimates put the civilian death toll at anywhere between 30,000 and 3 million. To put this into perspective, if you added the death tolls of Bosnia, Rwanda and East Timor, you would still be nowhere near the scale of the slaughter in Bangladesh.

It's essential that these crimes are investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, but it is tragic that it is this very process that seems to be fuelling violence in modern-day Bangladesh. The issue lies with the ICT itself. Despite its name, the Tribunal is not 'international' at all but a wholly domestic affair set up by a government with a clear agenda in promoting a particular version of the history of 1971. Given that many of the suspects are prominent members of opposition parties, most notably the Muslim party Jamaat-e-Islami, it is inevitable that the trials have impacted on modern politics.

The problem is that modern politics has also impacted on the trials. There are many reports of witnesses disappearing, of evidence being tampered with and judges being pressured by the government. One story I have heard involved a witness arriving at court only to be seized by the police and found months later rotting in an Indian prison.

With such an obviously flawed process, it is inevitable that supporters of Jamaat and many other Bangladeshis feel aggrieved and have taken to the streets to express their anger. These protests may reach a peak if prominent figure Delwar Hossian Sayeedi is executed. This process is meant to be about reconciliation and justice, but the way it is being conducted means old wounds are being reopened and there is a real risk of creating a radicalised and violent segment of Bangladeshi society. The bigger danger is that the violence spills over and draws in both India and Pakistan.

What can be done? First of all I think that there is a powerful case for a genuinely international tribunal, coordinated by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, and conducted in accordance with international standards of law and human rights. This would remove politics from the process and hopefully prevent violent protests. There also needs to be a much deeper engagement with Bangladesh in the areas of democracy and human rights. The recent General Election was a farce with the major opposition party not contesting them at all. In the wake of these elections we've seen renewed political violence including government crackdowns on protestors and the disappearance of critical journalists and activists. There is a role for the international community in building democratic confidence and capacity and in working with the government of Bangladesh in the area of human rights.

I believe that the UK is well-placed to lead on these issues. We have a historic relationship with Bangladesh due to our Commonwealth ties, a contemporary relationship due to the large Bangladeshi community in the UK and inextricable ties through the garment industry. If we do not step up to this challenge we risk losing our relevance in that region and we weaken the legitimacy of our interventions should the situation deteriorate further.

To do this we need to start taking a long-term foreign policy stance, focused on the future. By doing this, we can help Bangladesh focus on its own future rather than its past. This future risks being one of violence and division but, with our help, it could be one of peace and prosperity. Let's rise to that challenge.