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Bangladesh: Macron accused of putting trade before rights

September 12, 2023

As China and the US jostle for influence in Asia, French President Emmanuel Macron offered an alternative to Bangladesh during a visit. However, he refrained from commenting on the country's poor human rights record.

Emmanuel Macron gets off the plane in Bangladesh
Macron's two-day visit came on the back of the G20 summit held in neighboring IndiaImage: Prime Minister's Office of Bangladesh/Handout/REUTERS

During a rare two-day visit to Bangladesh, French President Emmanuel Macron focused on his country's Asia-Pacific strategy and ways to counterbalance a "new imperialism" in a region where several superpowers are jostling for influence.

The Bangladesh trip came after a series of short trips by Macron this year to Asian countries such as Mongolia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka.

"Based on democratic principles and the rule of law, in a region facing new imperialism, we want to propose a third way, with no intention to bully our partners or to lead them to an unsustainable scheme," he told Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka on Monday.

Macron's two-day visit came after attending the G20 summit in New Delhi.

Suppression of human rights in Bangladesh 

While the United States and China compete for influence in the wider region, Macron has pushed France as an alternative partner. 

He is the first French president to visit Bangladesh in well over three decades. Several Western powers widely criticized the world's eighth most populous country for its poor democracy and human rights records.

Rights groups have accused Sheikh Hasina of using law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to silence opposition members since she came to power 14 years ago. Hundreds of people have become victims of extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances by the security forces under her tenure.

Many opposition leaders, civil society members, and human rights defenders have faced politically motivated lawsuits that force them to spend most of their time in courtrooms or jail.

Government likely to exploit Macron visit, says expert

Jasmin Lorch, a Bangladesh expert at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute for Asian Studies, thinks that Macron's visit was very important for the South Asian country's ruling Awami League (AL) government, which can use it to claim both international and domestic legitimacy.

"The US has issued a visa ban for people who violate the electoral process and imposed sanctions on the paramilitary RAB while human rights groups have long been criticizing severe human rights violations committed by the Bangladeshi security forces," she told DW.

"In this context, Macron is offering the government a 'third way' and is promising to deepen political and economic ties between Bangladesh and France. It's a gift for the Hasina government, which can use Macron's visit to convey the message that it still has partners in the West despite US pressure and sanctions," Lorch added.

Macron ignores human rights, focuses on business, stability

Despite calls from rights groups, Macron refrained from publicly commenting on Bangladesh's poor democracy and human rights records during his visit to the country.

He focused more on regional stability and business opportunities his country negotiated with the South Asian nation in recent years.

Bangladesh exported goods, mostly garments, worth about $3.29 billion (€3.07 billion) to France between July 2022 and June 2023, according to the Bangladesh Export Promotion Bureau. France's exports to Bangladesh were worth about $254.32 million last year, according to the UN database on international trade.

Dhaka and Paris have inked a deal to support Bangladesh to launch an Earth observation satellite system.

The letter of intent between the state-run Bangladesh Satellite Company Limited and France's Airbus Defence and Space company was signed on Monday after the talks between Macron and Hasina.

Both leaders also discussed a "commitment" from Bangladesh's national airline to purchase 10 A350s from the planemaker Airbus, headquartered in France, a potential contract that could be worth as much as $3.2 billion.

National carrier Biman had previously always bought aircraft from the US manufacturer Boeing, and the hope of a purchase from Airbus was "an important point," Macron told reporters alongside Hasina.

The two leaders also discussed geopolitical stability in the Asia-Pacific region, supporting Bangladesh's infrastructure development and combating the impact of climate change, according to Hasina's press officer Shakhawat Moon.

"We both hope that this new strategic move between Bangladesh and France will play an effective role in establishing regional and global stability and peace," Hasina said.

Emmanuel Macron in Dhaka
Macron paid homage to Bangladesh independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum in DhakaImage: Yeasin Kabir Joy/AP Photo/picture alliance

Misconstrued as representing EU

South Asia analyst Lorch said she thinks that the timing of the French president's visit, which is just a few months before Bangladesh's national elections, is "unfortunate" because it can be viewed "as a signal that France is ready to prioritize geo-strategic and economic interests over democracy and human rights."

"And, although this is a bilateral visit, the position taken by France might even be viewed as representing the position of the European Union as a whole," she told DW.

The last two general elections, held in 2014 and 2018, were marred by allegations of massive vote rigging and intimidation of opposition activists, charges denied by Hasina's government. Her party won both controversial elections and she remained in power.

The country's opposition parties and civil society groups have been holding out hope for an important role by the international community in ensuring a free, fair, and participatory national election by January 2024.

Lorch said there is a broad consensus in European diplomatic circles about the last controversial elections. "Still, Europe has not come out very strongly against these violations of the electoral process as yet," she emphasized.

Both leaders agree on Rohingya repatriation

Both Macron and Hasina reiterated their commitment to put the issue of Rohingya repatriation high on the international agenda. According to UN data, around 1 million Rohingya Muslims live in squalid camps in Bangladesh after fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

Although several attempts have been made, the refugees are yet to return to their homeland.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh mark 'genocide day'

Dhaka and Paris underscored the need for creating conditions inside Myanmar for the voluntary, safe and sustainable return of the Rohingya people to their ancestral home in Rakhine, Myanmar.

Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a Rohingya researcher based in Cox's Bazar, considers Myanmar's citizenship law the main obstacle to the return of the refugees.

"A few refugees returned in 2018, but it later emerged that they were living under strict restrictions, with little freedom of movement and work," he told DW. "If Myanmar's citizenship law remains unchanged, any repatriation attempt will fail to address fundamental insecurity in Bangladesh."

The Rohingya are not recognized by Myanmar as a distinct ethnic group and have been subject to discrimination and demonization for decades. 

The French president's office has not responded to DW over whether Macron raised the issue of human rights violations with Bangladesh's Hasina during their meeting.

Edited by: John Silk

DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul