John Kerry dismissed reports the Bangladesh government “has its head in the sand” over the attacks

John Kerry dismissed reports the Bangladesh government “has its head in the sand” over the attacks

The US has pledged to work closely with Bangladesh to tackle the threat of terrorism in the country following a recent attack in Dhaka, and reaffirmed its commitment to trading with the country – applauding the growth of its apparel industry.

Speaking at the Edward M Kennedy Center in Bangladesh yesterday (29 August), US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the attack on 2 July at the Holey Artisan Bakery, which killed 20 foreigners – many of whom worked in the country's clothing industry. The violence, he said, along with dozens of smaller-scale attacks in the country over the past few years, are designed "to push people apart [and] create internal strife".

Terrorist attack "a tipping point" for Bangladesh?

"We all know that true prosperity is linked to a community's sense of security...and that growth is much harder to achieve and to sustain in the face of violence," he explained.

"If you want to have foreign investors come and invest, you need security, but security also has to be built on the strength of your civil society and the strength of your people's ability to be able to express their views and not feel as if the only place they can turn is to extremism in order to make a point.

"For each of these reasons, the US will continue to work very closely with Bangladesh and with partners on every single continent in order to defeat vicious terrorist networks, particularly those of Daesh and al-Qaida."

Kerry dismissed reports the Bangladesh government "has its head in the sand" over the attacks, and outlined a number of new steps in intelligence and law enforcement where the two countries will work together.

"We talked about all aspects of it, including the importance of inclusivity, of working with people, of making sure that you protect the democratic process even as you come down tough on the perpetrators themselves. We think there's much we can do to cooperate in that regard.

"We work already with the Bangladeshi police on community policing projects – now we're doing that with madrasah students to increase economic opportunities for vulnerable youth; with community leaders on conflict mitigation. So I'm confident that our assistance to Bangladesh will increasingly be designed to help the government address terrorism threats from domestic and transnational organisations.

"That's the nature of the beast that we are dealing with today. And I am absolutely confident that we will build additional capacity and that it will be effective."

At present, the US is Bangladesh's largest trading partner, largest export market, and a primary source of foreign direct investment. According to the Census Bureau, in 2015 the US exported around $942.5m in merchandise to Bangladesh while importing around $5.99bn.

Kerry pointed out that Bangladesh's $28bn garment industry has played a "uniquely important" role in this rise, contributing to its 6% annual economic growth. 

"But growth on its own – growth just for its own sake is not our only goal," he explained. "You can grow and grow and grow and grow, but you can be growing with the wrong values, you can be growing with the wrong outcomes, you can be growing with people not gaining in their rights or in their income or in their ability to get an education. Growth alone is not the measurement of all that is happening."

Kerry pointed to the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen factory fire as two examples that underscore how Bangladesh cannot enjoy prosperity if its workers are not safe and their rights are not ensured.

"That is why the US strongly supports efforts by government, by the private sector, by unions and the international agencies, in order to increase safety inspections, to close substandard factories, and make it easier for workers to be able to report violations without fear of retaliation.

"But these steps are only part of the story. Enhancing worker safety has to be paired with strengthening workers' rights. The fact is, garment factories across Bangladesh actually could benefit enormously from empowering labourers, allowing them to form labour unions, affording them full collective bargaining rights, because no one should ever be compelled to work in hazardous or exploitative conditions. It's really that simple.

"But my message to you is don't get mad because it doesn't happen overnight. It takes work and time."