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Defending Democracy in Bangladesh One Visa at a Time

Canada and the United States should adopt a common strategic democracy visa policy

By: /
20 June, 2023
Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is the sixth most populous city in the world.  Photo by Alit Saha/Pixabay Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is the sixth most populous city in the world.  Photo by Alit Saha/Pixabay
Owen Lippert
By: Owen Lippert
Director Opposition International and graduate, University of Notre Dame (PhD)

For many years, Canada has sought to strengthen democracy for the billions worldwide who have only partially experienced its empowerment and downstream economic and social benefits.   As background to Canada’s efforts, the condition of democracy worldwide has bottomed out following a 15-year democratic recession. See, for example, the  Varieties of Democracy Project that has tracked the rise of electoral autocracy in the last decade. Their findings: several countries, which once had meaningful elections, are now led by autocratic governments held in place through rigged elections.

In response, American President Joseph Biden has made democracy his signature issue by forming a loose coalition, the Global Summit for Democracies. The first virtual summit was held in December 2021 and a virtual follow-up took place in March 2023.  Canada strongly supported President Biden by announcing its own set of deliverables, including an oft-promised democracy agency.  The government also highlighted Canada’s known strengths in promoting democracy, for example, the work of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, Elections Canada’s role in Francophone Africa, and the management of electronic voting machines.

Now, Canada has an opportunity to cooperate with the United States (US) on a new-ish policy to enforce free and fair elections, by denying visas to those who engage in election fraud. The test run involves Bangladesh (population 172 million), a country with a history of polarized, violent, and often questionable elections, the next scheduled for January 2024.  Canada stands to benefit and to do good, by working with the US on a focused incentive for Bangladeshi elites to hold a credible election.

The fate of Bangladesh is important to global democracy, even though many people still view the country as a poor and troubled place. Its economy has grown steadily to now be on par with Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Its GNI per person is higher than India’s. If Bangladesh moves from the column of a contested democracy to an electoral autocracy it will be a major loss. To be fair, the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, however, has uncertain control over local political bosses and their musclemen, called mastans.

The US has helped Bangladesh’s democracy by training party leaders and providing infrastructure for an improved census and voters list. Canada has done the same, for instance, by providing transparent ballot boxes in the past.  Yet, in response to human rights abuses, in 2021 America disallowed visits by some members of the elite paramilitary civil defence force, the Rapid Action Battalion or RAB.  Also, Bangladesh was not invited to either of the Global Summit for Democracies. It is fair to say that America is losing patience with Dhaka’s drift towards an unchallenged Awami League government entrenched through controversial elections.  

In the toolkit of democracy assistance, there are incentives and disincentives.   On May 24, the US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken announced that visas could be denied to Bangladeshis who undermine free and fair elections. A leading Bangladeshi American scholar, Ali Riaz, described for the Atlantic Council the rule this way:

“Under this new policy, the United States will be able to deny visas to those who obstruct the election process in Bangladesh.  The actions to be considered “obstructions” to the electoral process and those who will come under it are clearly laid out. 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, are listed as acts of obstruction. Those who will come under the purview of the new policy include current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services.”

The day after Blinken’s announcement, US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu made clear that the policy applied not only to the Awami League government but also to the opposition BNP headed by Khaleda Zia and her son, Tarique, currently in exile in the U.K.

The policy also suggests a new basis, electoral interference, for some measures such as the “Magnitsky Act” that would stress personal responsibility rather than collective sanctions for human and political rights abuses, including media suppression.

The standards set by the US for denying visas in the future under this policy may likely form international standards and provide a quasi-juridical answer to the question raised from Africa to Asia – who will judge, and how will they judge, whether an election is sufficiently free and fair to be recognized as valid by democratic nations? The critical question now is how will such a policy be implemented.

Indeed, the various definitions as to what “free and fair” means, used by election observer organizations are confusing, largely inadequate, and never enforced. Scholars Pippa Norris and Susan Hyde have detailed their shortcomings in the Electoral Integrity Project. In part, the problem stems from there being no effective sanctions. But what if visa rights and, for instance, loan conditions were more closely tied to evidence of democratic practice?

Canada might already have an invitation to contribute towards the answers. Jon Danilowicz, a retired Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, writing in South Asia Perspectives, notes: “It is now time for other bilateral and multilateral partners to demonstrate their commitment to supporting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.”

Canada, in this regard, provides the key to a continental policy as it attracts many well-to-do Bangladeshis and Canada has an opportunity to work with the US in adopting a common strategic democracy visa policy.  Indeed, it makes little sense for a visa policy to apply in Buffalo but not in nearby Toronto. Global Affairs Canada (GAC), for example, could provide a conduit for Canadian expertise as to the details of implementation, criteria, and the rules of determination, adjudication, appeal, and enforcement.  In such a way, Canada and the US can send a message: North America will not welcome political manipulators and oligarchs seeking to park their assets and families. 

Early reactions to a continental “strategic democracy visa” has been positive.  Enough so, that GAC should enquire even informally with Washington on how the two countries might implement the policy. And there are three clear benefits.

  • It would make a tangible contribution towards a continental policy of enforcement and could play a catalytic role in broader adoption by NATO, Commonwealth and La Francophonie partners.
  • It highlights Canada’s known strengths in electoral democracy and dispute resolution.
  • Canada would reinforce its “first mover” status as a bilingual, civil, and common law system, a multinational country within a parliamentary constitution. 

Self-interest aside, Canada has deep ties with Bangladesh and has always strived to assist its people. The Bangladeshi diaspora in Canada is a remarkable and vibrant community.  We should help our friends.

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