A Watershed Moment for Bangladesh-US Relations?

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The Bangladesh Genocide of 1971 must not be forgotten … We must not let the years erase the memory of the millions who were massacred. Recognizing the genocide strengthens the historical record, educates our fellow Americans, and lets would-be perpetrators know such crimes will not be tolerated or forgotten. – Republican Congressman Steve Chabot

The military junta of West Pakistan organized among the most brutal genocides in history on March 25, 1971 with a plan to crush the Bengali nation. On a single day, around 50,000 people were massacred across the country.

The nights and days of the nation became horrific due to the bullets of machine guns of the invaders, tank-mortar shells, and the flames of fire. The massacre of March 25, 1971 was just the beginning; in the next nine months, through countless killing of innocent women, men, and children, the Pakistani occupation forces and their collaborators created the story of barbaric genocide and crimes against humanity.

The history of this brutal and ruthless massacre is still not recognized internationally.

For international recognition

To explicitly recognize the 1971 massacre of Bengalis by the Pakistani military as “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” two US representatives tabled an unprecedented bipartisan resolution calling for the acknowledgment of the 1971 genocide by the Pakistani Armed Forces.

They urged Congress to denounce the crimes, Pakistan to apologize to the people of Bangladesh for its part in the genocide, and the prosecution of any surviving criminals in conformity with the provisions.

On October 15, the resolution was filed by Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna and (then) Republican Congressman Steve Chabot, co-chair of the Bangladesh Caucus and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

The resolution comes at a time just after Bangladesh finished celebrating its golden jubilee of independence along with the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This recognition can thus be regarded as one of the landmark achievements for Bangladesh-US friendship.

However, this resolution from the US is not placed out of the blue or made overnight. There was a continuous effort going on from Bangladesh to get support from the international community. Besides, many international and national organizations provided tremendous assistance.

As part of those initiatives, a one-day seminar on reminiscing and recognizing the case of Bangladesh’s 1971 Genocide was organized in collaboration with the High Commission for Bangladesh in Canada, the Bangabandhu Centre for Bangladesh Studies (BCBS) in Canada, the Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh, the Genocide Studies Center at the University of Dhaka, the Refugees Resilience Center, and Rotary Club Canada.

The seminar, titled as “Remember and Recognize: The Case of Bangladesh Genocide of 1971,” took place on September 21, 2022, at the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, Canada.

In April 1972 the US recognized the independence of Bangladesh promptly and established diplomatic relations with the newly-born state. That was the starting point of a solid and trustworthy friendship, though there were moments in 1971 when the US regime backed the Pakistan army.

The resolution on recognizing Bangladesh’s genocide by the US has profound implications on the relationship between Bangladesh and the US as it denounces the crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed by the Pakistani military against the people of Bangladesh between March 1971 and December 1971 and acknowledges that these crimes against Bengalis constituted crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. It recalls the suffering and deaths of the untold number of victims, and expresses its profound compassion for the suffering and hardships.

The government of Bangladesh has been observing Genocide Day on March 25 to bring this mass murder and torture to the fore. The government of Pakistan is urged in the eight-page resolution titled “recognizing the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971” to acknowledge its involvement in the atrocity, extend official pardon to the government and people of Bangladesh, and bring any surviving perpetrators to justice in accordance with international law in the face of mounting evidence.

Besides, the resolution also detailed how West Pakistani elites denied Bangalis civil, economic, and political rights and treated them as second-class citizens.

Additionally, it reported General Yahya Khan’s command to the highest military officials to execute the Bengalis. The government of Bangladesh estimates that three million people were killed and 200,000 women were raped.

Finally, it aimed to have the US proclaim its dedication to fostering peace, stability, and intercommunal harmony, as well as the right of all residents of the region — regardless of nationality, racial background, ethnicity, or religion — to benefit from democratic institutions, the rule of law, religious freedom, and economic opportunity.

After independence, considering the international context, there was not much discussion on this issue, because if any country played a role in the independence of Bangladesh at that time, then that issue would have come to the fore. As a result, the issue of the sacrifices made by the common people during the war of independence was also hidden.

Hence, in the interest of removing this imbalance in history, the issue of genocide needs international recognition. This recognition is also needed in the interest of the trial of those responsible for those massacres.

What does it mean for Bangladesh? 

The motion is unprecedented because it will have global practical ramifications since the US has its own statute defining its position once such resolutions are enacted. Certain ways will be aided by it.

First, Following the recognition from the US, the Western world and its allies will be more inclined to recognize what happened in 1971 as genocide. It will help Bangladesh facilitate other states to pass resolutions in their respective parliaments for recognition of the genocide.

This will act as a significant breakthrough in gaining global legitimacy.

Second, it will intensify calls for Pakistan to transform its perspective and encourage them to take liability for genocide victims, especially individuals who were tortured, raped, and forced to travel tor leave the country in search of safety or seek sanctuary in Indian camps across the border. Moreover, Pakistan would come under pressure from the international community to unconditionally apologize to Bangladesh.

Third, Bangladesh can pursue the UN to claim recognition of the 1971 genocide if the resolution is approved by the US senate and signed by the US president owing to US influence in the global community. Once Bangladesh receives UN recognition, it will have solid justification to demand that the 1971 genocide criminals, whether they are living or dead, be brought to justice.

Fourth, this will bring a spillover effect on the other genocidal atrocities committed by many perpetrator states which demand immediate interventions and justice — like the Tokyo and Nuremberg trials. People must see that genocide is taking or has taken place in some countries of the world due to non-recognition and non-demand for justice.

The textbook example can be the genocide carried out by the Myanmar army on the Rohingya community. If the issue of genocide could have been kept fresh in the world court, such incidents could have been avoided.

Fifth, by presenting the history of the atrocity, Bangladesh can showcase its cultural diversity — the Pakistan army targeted many of the cultural personalities.

The Liberation War of Bangladesh is a war depicting the sacrifice of its people. This should also be recognized and the recognition from the US House of Representatives will open the door for other countries to recognize and admire the sacrifice of the people.

Both Bangladesh and the US fought a bloody war to get rid of oppression, ensuring rights and building a nation on their own terms. So, it is the solidarity that brings both the countries closer.

Now the time has come for the rest of the world to recognize the genocide.

Picture taken on July 24, 1971 of the destroyed streets of Madhabpur, Sylhet during the War of Liberation in 1971 AFP.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA). Previously, he served as a Research Assistant at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and International Republican Institute (IRI).

Published in Dhaka Tribune [Link] and Daily Sun [Link]