Bangladesh goes backward

April 6, 2011 - 0:0

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) -- At a time when Congress is considering cutting back U.S. foreign assistance and scrutinizing America's commitments abroad, Bangladeshis have reason to worry. Bangladesh is an important partner of the U.S. in South Asia, and it receives significant development aid. However, bilateral relations are being jeopardized by Dhaka's removal of Nobel Laureate and microfinance pioneer Professor Mohammad Yunus from his position as managing director of Grameen Bank last month.

Yunus is the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a recipient of both the American Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. Grameen Bank continues to have a significant impact in Bangladesh and stands as a model for other microfinance institutions around the world. It is helping empower millions, mostly women, through access to loans without collateral, lifting them out of abject poverty.
Grameen Bank founder Mohammad Yunus, who suddenly finds himself under attack by the Bangladeshi government. He is scheduled to appear before the country's Supreme Court this week.
Dhaka's action against Yunus has been quite arbitrary. Shortly after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called microfinanciers “bloodsuckers of the poor,” her government said that Yunus was past the legal age at which he could serve on the bank's board. But, he's been older than this 60 year-old age limit for more than a decade.
When Yunus was about to reach the age of 60, the bank's board of directors unanimously decided that this limit should not apply to the managing director. That was 1999. On March 8 this year, Bangladesh's finance minister again confirmed that the board (which includes three government appointees) long ago decided to waive the retirement age limit.
So by suddenly removing Yunus, the Bangladeshi government is attempting to exert greater influence over the operations of Grameen Bank and counter potential political opposition. Mr. Yunus had a brief foray into politics when he started his own political party in 2007. While the experiment was short-lived, it was never forgiven by Ms. Hasina, who has since seen him and his widespread popularity as a major political threat. Beyond the personal vendetta, this represents a major violation of the rights of Bangladeshis to have transparent, open democratic elections and institutions.
U.S. State Department officials, including Secretary Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Robert Blake, have expressed deep concern about the government's treatment of Yunus and have stated repeatedly that a failure to reach a compromise could impact bilateral relations. In addition, 26 members of the U.S. Congress have written Ms. Hasina calling on her to respect the bank's independence and warning of the potential impact on the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship. Bangladesh partners with the U.S. on global health, regional security and engagement with Muslim countries, among other areas.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provides Bangladesh with $100 million per year to promote democracy, human rights and economic development. But the Bangladeshi government's action against Grameen Bank threatens to sour diplomatic ties and could result in a reduction of U.S. assistance.
This case also reflects broader problems with Bangladesh's judicial system and widespread corruption that undermines democracy, threatens freedom and destabilizes the country. Amnesty International has raised serious concerns over the independence of the judiciary in Bangladesh and allegations of torture in custody. The government has been accused of using the judicial system to punish and harass its opponents. For example, last June Reporters Without Borders roundly condemned the arrest of an opposition newspaper editor and the subsequent shuttering of that newspaper. The statement said: “(Ms. Hasina's) government is clearly unable to tolerate criticism from this opposition newspaper and, in particular, its coverage of the controversial award of energy contracts to foreign companies.”
While it is reprehensible that many victims of these past injustices have gone unnoticed at the international level, Yunus's case has helped bring to light the depth of these problems. It demonstrates the urgency for stronger international support of Grameen Bank. With Mr. Yunus's appearance before the country's Supreme Court scheduled this week, it is now more crucial than ever that Bangladeshis be heard.
The U.S. Congress should further substantiate its support for judicial independence in Bangladesh by passing a resolution stating that bilateral ties depend upon judicial reforms that meet international human rights standards. Through hard work and sacrifice, Bangladeshis have succeeded in building a democracy in which respect for civil rights is an important ideal. That progress is now at risk, and so this step backward requires greater international attention.
The importance of the legal case between Yunus and the Bangladeshi government extends far beyond one individual or institution. If someone of his international reputation and stature can be brought down unjustly by the government, then no citizen is safe, and the society is not free.
Mr. Chowdhury is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh and ambassador to the United States. He is presently the vice chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP