Bangladesh is readying its answers to European Union's queries about democracy, governance and rights issues to see that the zero duty market access to the 27-nation bloc continues beyond 2024.
The issues such as electoral reforms, justice reforms, law enforcement, human rights, good governance, and protection of workers' rights will be discussed at the EU-Bangladesh Joint Commission's 10th session in Brussels on 18-20 May.
Bangladeshi products now get duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market under the Everything but Arms (EBA) which will enter the next phase in 2024 with revised policies.
Ahead of the crucial talks, Bangladesh has already started preparations to formulate its policy and position on human rights, democracy, and activities of the law enforcement activities including allegations of extrajudicial killings, according to sources in the government.
As part of this, the secretary to the Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division, Md Moinul Kabir, is going to sit with representatives of the ministries concerned today. The Legislative Division sought written statements from the ministries on the country's policy and position prior to the meeting.
Explaining Dhaka's position on democracy, human rights
Earlier in March at the US-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue held in Dhaka, Bangladesh had to explain the issues of democratic system, human and labour rights alongside the official position on Russia-Ukraine war.
In response to US queries, Bangladesh highlighted the enactment of a law to appoint the chief election commissioner and other election commissioners for the development of the democratic system, and the role of Rab in protecting human rights, especially in identifying and arresting the perpetrators of the "Seven Murder" in Narayanganj.
Dhaka also highlighted the various measures the government has implemented to protect labour rights following the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013.
Officials of the ministries concerned have told The Business Standard that the government will highlight Bangladesh's stance on these important issues at the forthcoming EU-Bangladesh joint commission meeting as well.
The joint commission was established in line with the commitments undertaken by the EU and Bangladesh under the Co-operation Agreement of 2001. The 9th session of the joint commission was held in Dhaka on 21 October 2019.
The forthcoming joint commission meeting will be preceded by the meetings of three subgroups: human rights and good governance; trade and economic cooperation, and development cooperation.
Sources told TBS that the secretary to the Economic Relations Division (ERD) will lead the Bangladesh side at the joint commission meeting. The secretary to the Legislative Division will lead the Bangladesh delegation at the meeting of the human rights and good governance sub-group, while the commerce secretary will lead the Bangladesh side at the meeting of the trade and economic co-operation sub-group, and the secretary to the Financial Institutions Division will lead the Bangladesh delegation at the meeting of development co-operation sub-group.
The ERD has already written to the ministries concerned, asking each of them to nominate two officials to attend the meeting in Brussels, one of whom must be a secretary or additional secretary and the other a joint secretary or deputy secretary.
Dhaka wants benefits under new EU GSP
People concerned said about 50% of Bangladesh's total export earnings currently come from the EU markets as all Bangladeshi goods except arms and ammunitions enjoy duty-free and quota-free access there, but the country's key export item, readymade garments, is at risk of losing the benefit from 2024 once the EU introduces a new GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) policy.
In order to continue the GSP benefit for Bangladesh under its new policy, the EU in November 2019 provided Bangladesh with a 9-point action plan and wanted a time-bound roadmap to implement it. And that was the first time the issue of human rights was included as a component of the 9-point action plan. The "sensitive" issues such as eliminating child labour, ensuring quality primary education for all, and launching trade unions in EPZ-affiliated factories were also there.
One year later, Bangladesh submitted a roadmap for the implementation of the 9-point action plan by 2026. The EBA Review Committee of the EU visited Bangladesh last month to see first-hand the implementation situation of the roadmap.
Also, the government has started diplomatic efforts and commercial activities to retain the EBA facility even after the expiration of the existing EBA in 2023 and avail GSP facility in EU member countries from 2029 after the country's graduation to the status of a developing country.
EU focusing on human rights, support on Russia-Ukraine issue
A commerce ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TBS that although the EU suspended GSP facilities for Cambodia and Myanmar over alleged human rights violations, the trade bloc had never linked Bangladesh's human rights situation with the EBA or GSP scheme. The EU has been focusing on this issue for the past two years, he added.
Government officials think the EU will attach extra importance to the human rights situation in Bangladesh in the wake of recent US sanctions on RAB and some of its former and current officials for alleged human rights abuses.
They said the EU, like the US, may seek Bangladesh's support for the West in the Ukraine-Russia war.
An analysis of the draft agenda of the sub-group on good governance and human rights shows that democracy, governance, and rule of law are given utmost importance.
Issues such as freedom of expression, freedom of media, and activities of civil society will also be given importance, while human rights cooperation in the UN and the rights of minorities are also among the major topics to be discussed at the meeting.
Rights of women, children, and marginalised group, abolition of the death penalty, and the Rohingya refugee crisis and their repatriation are also in the meeting agenda.
Due diligence obligations crucial
Meanwhile, on 23 February this year, the EU released its long-awaited draft regulation on human rights and environmental due diligence – a critical component of its sustainable corporate governance initiative.
The draft regulation requires large EU companies, and some non-European companies doing significant business in Europe, to assess their actual and potential human rights and environmental impacts throughout their operations and down their supply chains and to take action to prevent, mitigate, and remedy identified human rights and environmental harms.
Companies that fail to conduct effective due diligence or to implement preventative or remediation measures face both administrative penalties and civil liability.
"The due diligence obligations enacted by Germany and the guideline proposed by the EU may have a serious impact on Bangladesh's export to the Eurozone area. Hence, Bangladesh needs to take adequate preparation to face the challenges of the upcoming due diligence obligations," reads a letter written to the commerce ministry by Md Saiful Islam, president of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dhaka.
On the other hand, the meeting of the sub-group on trade and economic co-operation will discuss shipping and logistics services in Bangladesh, customs clearance and tax policy of the country, lifting of a ban on the exports of hides and skins, and investment issues.
In February, the EU proposed Bangladesh increase off-dock customs facilities for all imported cargo by quickly removing idle containers and introducing round use of containers to facilitate its trade with Bangladesh.
In a letter to the foreign minister, the EU also sought approval for the interchange of empty containers between Dhaka's rail and river terminals.
Besides, the EU demanded that the share of foreign companies in the logistics sector be allowed to increase to 100% from the existing 49% with a view to increasing EU investment in the sector.
Calling for streamlining logistics-related services, the EU said a major challenge in shipping and logistics is the involvement of multiple ministries and agencies that play roles in setting policies, rules and regulations, planning, operating infrastructure, and providing services.