Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken

On May 24, the US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, announced that visas could be denied to Bangladeshis who undermined a free and fair election. Many commentators did not view the statement as a major change; more as a new threat than as a new policy since the US always could deny visas. A closer reading of Blinken’s statement reveals an important addition to America’s democracy toolkit, which could apply worldwide. His action also presented allied countries with the choice to adopt the practice to bolster effective international enforcement of democratic standards. America’s North American partner, Canada, should seriously respond positively, and, to be credible, do so within the timeframe of the Bangladesh election likely in February 2024.

“Today, I am announcing a new visa policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) (“3C”) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections. Under this policy, the United States will be able to restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. This includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services. The United States notified the Bangladeshi government of this decision on May 3, 2023.

Actions that undermine the democratic election process include 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.”

The US is proposing something like a “Magnitsky Act” to apply to politicians, armed personnel, and officials, who undermine a free and fair election in Bangladesh, including through media suppression.

The broader importance of the Secretary’s announcement has been pointed out by Jon Danilowicsz, the retired Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassies in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Juba, South Sudan and the U.S. Consulate General in Peshawar, Pakistan. Jon now serves as the editor at large for South Asia Perspectives. He notes “In the past, India exercised a virtual veto over U.S. policy in Bangladesh by virtue of Washington’s deference to New Delhi on issues in its neighbourhood. While the Biden Administration has continued efforts to strengthen ties with India, it has also signalled a willingness to “agree to disagree” when it comes to Bangladesh. It is now time for other bilateral and multilateral partners to demonstrate their commitment to supporting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.”

Jon, as a former civil servant, duly points out that implementing the policy will require answering complex questions. To whom will the penalties apply and for what acts of omission and commission? By what evidence, collected by whom, and judged by whom will penalties be meted out? How will they be enforced? Is there any route to appeal?

There is some scope for mischief. In law, visas are beyond the purview of the courts. However, Never underestimate a lawyer with a mortgage. The Biden Administration has sent a strong signal that democracy protection is a signature mandate. Risks are anticipated.

The initiative would greatly benefit from a coordinated international effort. Blinken has launched a creative innovation in the multinational wielding of “soft power.” Canada has long held analogous aspirations. The Bangladesh test case provides Canada with an ideal opportunity to demonstrate its commitment. North America can be the key testing ground for an Election Protection “Magnitsky” Doctrine. If America and Canada cooperate, together they will set a continental template for the United Kingdom and Australia/New Zealand — other major diaspora destinations.

A North American zone supporting election protectors and punishing election underminers sends a powerful message.

Do not — hijack elections, make a fortune by political muscle, exploit trade preferences meant for the poor, and then expect to secure your gains in North American investments and school your children in its universities.

Time is short. What is needed now is an intense period of consultation with and within Bangladesh itself, its government, opposition, civil society, and citizens. Importantly, the American government should also consult the Bangladeshi diaspora, heavily concentrated in New York.

For Canada to consider participation in a coordinated North American effort, it should also undertake a broad consultation with its contacts in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi diaspora in Canada has centres in Toronto and Montreal. Canada has closer ties to Bangladesh than many imagine including sending out missionaries from Montreal in the 1840s.

Canadian civil society, particularly groups focused on democracy, has a unique role to play by getting the ball rolling. To that end, Opposition International will contact groups including the Canadian International Council, the Parliamentary Centre of Canada and CIGI. The effort is to gauge support for an “ask” by civil society for the Government of Canada to, at least, mirror the American denial of visas for specific individuals.

Be it resolved that Canada consider mutual adoption of Secretary Blinken’s policy of Bangladesh election protection through visa enforcement.

Such discussion is well ahead of Canada’s official consensus. Such is the licence of civil society when it uses its own resources. Moreover, slight harm has come from too much discussion too soon.

Owen Lippert,