Rethinking International Security Sector Assistance:
British Assistance to the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh

BP/BD/01-11 25 February 2011

“There are incidents of trials that are not possible under the laws of the land. The government will need to continue with extra-judicial killings, commonly called crossfire, until terrorist activities and extortion are uprooted." - Shahjahan Khan, Shipping Minister Bangladesh Government 2009.[1]

“[UK] government has agreed to provide human rights training to the Rapid Action Battalion, a branch of the Bangladeshi police, whose chequered human rights record has been identified as a driver of radicalisation in that country”. - UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2009 Annual Human Rights Report

Any extrajudicial killing is a sad thing and this is not tolerable. There is a possibility that one can kill another in self-defence, but whether the killing was in self-defence or not should be decided by the court. If the court gives the verdict that a police or RAB officer killed a particular person in a shootout in self-defence then we will be satisfied." – Dr Mizanur Rahman, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh on 9 February 2011 while addressing the inaugural ceremony of a seminar on UPR follow-up and implementation organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh and the Commonwealth Secretariat. [2]


In the last few days the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has continued to carry out ‘crossfire killings’ or ‘encounter killings’, euphemisms for extrajudicial executions. The recent leak of cables revealing UK’s support to the RAB has, for once, sparked international attention onto Bangladesh’s appalling human rights record[3] and that of the RAB in particular.

International human rights groups have, rightly, responded with concern. In this paper Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) seeks to assess UK’s support. This paper examines the political context and raises questions about the FCO project design and the logic that sits behind it.

After nearly 36 months of assistance, extrajudicial executions by RAB continue to rise. If UK’s assistance is focussed on human rights, as the FCO claims, then the medium term data suggests there is cause for concern over the UK’s assistance.

The British High Commissioner Stephen Evans has refused to be drawn on renewal of assistance, when it ends in March this year.[4] The UK’s defence of its position emphasises the centrality of human rights in UK’s foreign policy. The UK argues that they have raised human rights concerns at the highest level.  This is of course entirely accurate. But experience elsewhere suggests, if words are not matched by changes to actual assistance, then the message is, at best, ambiguous.

Experience elsewhere also forcefully demonstrates that the FCO’s confident assurances, that its assistance to the RAB will not be abused, are more than misplaced.  Finally it suggests that FCO’s support in Bangladesh appears to share design flaws in common with other security sector work in the region. This commonality should concern Ministers in the UK.  It is suggestive of a flawed intervention logic applied more widely than just in South Asia. 

ACHR is not opposed to engagement per se: ‘support allows us to engage with key agents of change within the institution’ runs the defensive line. Engagement is a means to an end, not an end. There is value in engagement but not, as is so often the case, when it is mistaken for influence.

If a project focuses on rights then it is not unreasonable that outcomes should be tied to measurable human rights indicators. This is the logic that would be applied to any other UK’s development assistance. This being so, project logic would suggest that the rise in extrajudicial killings should lead to changes in the assistance. ACHR would urge an immediate suspension of assistance.

If assistance is to be provided, given the stakes, project design (the framework for engagement) merits very stringent conditions to bring an end to extrajudicial executions and torture, and establish mechanisms for accountability. Without ensuring these guarantees, further assistance will be construed as de facto political support for further killings, at the expense of the British tax payers.

The FCO should bear in mind that the RAB’s institutional use of murder and torture is not the place for fuzzy and uncountable concepts of ‘awareness’ and ‘capacity built’.

The Rapid Action Battalion

In 2004, the government of Bangladesh raised the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), primarily from military officers, as an elite anti-crime fighting force. It is widely accepted that the RAB was used to suppress political opposition, including the Awami League. The RAB had some success in curtailing crimes.[5] But since 2004, the FCO estimates that more than 1,300 persons have allegedly been killed by law enforcement agencies.[6] There is little dispute that the majority of the killings has been carried out by the RAB.

The RAB itself has admitted killing of more than 600 people since 2004. Its routine use of torture is a well documented. [7]

The Prime Minister and her party opposed the RAB when in opposition. Soon after the December 2008 elections, the Awami League-led government promised zero-tolerance for extrajudicial killings. They promised that all perpetrators of extrajudicial killings would be brought to justice. The PM told human rights groups, as recently as January 2011, that the government does not order the RAB to target members of the opposition nor order the killing of specific individuals.[8]

A popular law and order response to crime  

The killings enjoy significant political support amongst Dhaka’s middle classes, including significant sections of the media and civil society.[9] Popular discourse in Dhaka emphasizes crime as a threat to individual personal security and a potential source of state instability. As a result of rising crime, hard line law and order policies attract public support. Bangladesh’s powerful elite benefit, as theInternational Crisis Group (ICG) reports, “This is not because they don’t commit crimes but because the status quo works for them. In other words, they can buy justice or buy their way out of it”.[10]

The United States of America and the RAB

The Wikileaks cables revealed that in late 2008, U.S Ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty also noted civil society support for the killings, in cables to Washington. He used this to buttress arguments in favour of the US support to the RAB.[11] The cable appears to rather selectively interpret this civil society support as ‘nuanced’. The cables fail to consider any alternative motivations, for example those suggested by ICG. Oppressive measures, even social cleansing, enjoy popularity in times of public insecurity. But emotive reactions are not analysis. And security sector assistance is not best framed by the knee jerk reactions.

Bangladesh and indeed Washington would do well to be wary of the Ambassador Moriarty’s confident analysis. His past record is worth recalling.  During his tenure in Nepal, he repeatedly attempted to destabilize peace talks, arguing that the Maoist opposition was ultimately only interested in violent takeover. Six years and one unusually peaceful democratic election later, there would appear to be credible question marks about the quality of Ambassador Moriarty’s analysis, not least the antagonistic public stance taken by the Ambassador, during a sensitive period for the Nepalese.

Yet, in Bangladesh his confidence appears undimmed. The cables reveal Moriarty views the RAB as a solution to Bangladesh’s security problems.[12] Again, there are close analogies to Nepal, where he pushed the idea of the Nepal Rangers Battalion as a means to militarily defeat the Maoists. He did so at a time, when it was clear to most others that there was no military solution to what was a fundamentally political problem. Although military hardware support to Nepal was curtailed during the Royal Takeover, training continues. The US support has included such notable as Brigadier General Victor Rana, who was an international fellow at the U.S. National Defense University in 2009. Rana was Chief of Operations in the Directorate of Military Operations. He had control over the battalions active in the Maharajgunj barracks which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights alleges were responsible for systematic torture and disappearances.[13]

Ambassador Moriarty and his predecessor’s[14] open support for a politically ambitious Army, were carried out (in concert with others) at the expense of democratic parties, democratic institutions and human rights. Moriarty’s prolonged support for the King, even after the Royal Takeover is, again, a matter of public record.

Moriarty has repeatedly and vocally raised human rights in Bangladesh, just as he did in Nepal, but even the limited cables available suggest that the Embassy’s domestically driven, and narrowly defined security agenda is prioritized to the effective exclusion of human rights. The use of human rights violations to fuel criminal and insurgent activity appears, once again, to be overlooked.

Consequences of hard line law and order solutions

America’s domestic agenda plays into Bangladesh’s crime discourse. And the consequences of addressing criminality through a hard line security prism have familiar outcomes. Punitive and authoritarian methods of control and punishment are adopted and implemented without much public opposition. 

And, as in the past, oppressive measures are extended to suppress legitimate dissent.  Sections of the government have portrayed legitimate protest in the garment industry as somehow instigated by foreign or vested interests within the country. Violent oppression of workers, expressing more than legitimate grievance, has met with limited protest and again, serves the interests of the elite.

An ‘iron fist’ security policy is certainly popular, it may serve the elite, and it may indeed reduce some forms of crime but, the use of murder and torture as the principal tools to combat crime is not without cost. The first concern is over the weakening of the rule of law. The RAB is breaking Bangladesh law. The RAB’s crimes go unpunished and in the absence of legal means to resolve these grievances, victims and their families will increasingly favour more extreme measures. It is unclear how the Bangladesh authorities can require ordinary citizens to obey Bangladesh’s laws if its own security forces do not do so.

But for the RAB to be able to break Bangladeshi law with so little reaction requires a particular environment that prevents laws being implemented and accountability measures from working. The attacks on civil society made by Home Minister Sahara Khatun in the section on political assurances should be seen in this context. For the killings to continue requires the gradual unpicking of the rule of law.

So while the RAB may have had some success in fighting some forms of crime, there would appear to be a case to suggest that the methodology of the RAB is fuelling other crimes and, indeed, violent resistance to the state. The UK agrees, or at least sections of the FCO agree. The FCO stated in the 2009 FCO Annual Human Rights report that the ‘[UK]government has agreed to provide human rights training to the Rapid Action Battalion, a branch of the Bangladeshi police, whose chequered human rights record has been identified as a driver of radicalisation in that country.’

All of this points to the urgent need for deep reforms. However, where popular discourse focuses on the  language of the war on terror,  police or RAB reform appears at best, unpopular and at worst, inconvenient to the government’s constituency. The risks are noted by ICG:

‘If the government fails to move beyond the current modest reform process, the democratic transition could falter should deteriorating security give the military another chance to intervene, using, as it has in the past, the pretext of upholding law and order to justify derailing democracy. Deep structural reforms– including a new police law – and major additional resources are necessary to create an effective and accountable service. Above all, it will take political will.’[15]

UK support to the RAB:

The next question is then, to what extent has the UK’s support contributed to the RAB given the prevailing environment? The UK’s support for human rights training in the RAB was reported by the Guardian newspaper in December 2010. The information was, in fact, already in the public domain.[16]   Following the Wikileaks release, the FCO, which funds the programme from its counterterrorism programme, told the media that the support was intended to provide "human rights and ethical policing skills training”.[17]

ACHR agrees with the UK government that there is an urgent need to address violations within the institution of the RAB. But while the UK government may have identified a problem, it may not necessarily follow that they are best placed to assist nor is it clear that their response is appropriate.  For example, it is worth noting that considerable experience with transfer/transplanting of experiences from Western European and American institutions to institutions elsewhere, has a poor record of success.[18] And in a similar vein, there is now a strong consensus in the development community that ‘best practice’ suggests that experiences are best shared between institutions with similar functions and experience.[19] It is worth underlining in this regard, that the UK has no paramilitary institution to draw experience from.

That aside, with hindsight of nearly three years of assistance to the RAB, and based on what appears to be a further deterioration in the RAB’s human rights record[20] , it would appear important to ask what has been achieved. 

Measuring the impact of UK support to the RAB:

The FCO has responded to international concern that it is monitoring RAB assistance. It claims that it provided assistance only after ‘careful assessment’.[21] But, if this is the case, the evidence of increasing use of extrajudicial execution by the RAB raises valid questions about the quality of the FCOs initial assessment and indeed subsequent project design.

Three years have passed since the training began.  That gives a project evaluation a good measure of time. Good project management, be it human rights or otherwise, establishes clear end goals.  Any project needs a clear set of evaluative indicators. These are derived from an analysis of the problems. One must assume that these were established in the FCO’s initial assessment.  Since FCO’s public concern focuses on human rights, it would appear logical that the number of extrajudicial executions would serve as a key indicator of performance.

Similarly as impunity is another key driver behind rights violation by the RAB, another measurable indicator would logically suggest judicial and police action against perpetrators of human rights violations. Finally a third indicator, and admittedly less measurable, would appear to be an analysis of the political reaction to the RAB killings, as this will be at least suggestive of political will.

On all three counts, it is difficult to find positive evidence of impact. According to reliable estimates in 2010, 68 people were killed in ‘encounters’ with the RAB.[22] In 2009, the RAB killed 41 people.[23] Year on year this represents a significant increase.

Moreover, it would appear that the practice of extrajudicial execution is spreading into other arms of the security forces.[24] The government repeatedly denigrates the institution of the police. The RAB was one response to police failings. But the link between the popularity of the RAB and an increase in police extrajudicial killing is difficult to refute.

Similarly, on judicial action there has been no movement. Not a single member of the RAB has been independently investigated or prosecuted.

Political assurances:

International attention on UK’s assistance has prompted the FCO to seek high level assurances from Bangladesh’s Prime Minister.[25] Whatever the British Prime Minister was told by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, it sits uneasily with the stance of her key Ministers.

On 26 January 2011, Home Minister of Bangladesh, Sahara Khatun stated that no extra-judicial killing had taken place during the tenure of the present government. Khatun has also suggested that all the killings were made in self defence.[26] This self defence argument is one ventriloquised from the RAB. It should be underlined that in a country governed by the rule of law each case should be independently ruled on by a court. It is the role of a government Minister to uphold the division between executive and judiciary rather than undermine judicial process and by making wild eyed unsubstantiated claims.

Moreover, the attention of the international community on Bangladesh has led to an increase in attacks on dissent from civil society. For example, on 27 January 2011, Home Minister Sahara Khatun accused human rights organisations of "siding with the criminals" killed in "encounters" with law enforcers”.[27] On 27 January 2011, Hassan Mahmood Khondker, Inspector General of Police (IGP), urged journalists not to hinder their “work by one-sided criticism".[28] Given the very wide range of attacks on dissent in Bangladesh these attacks represent more than rhetoric and should be read with some concern. The UK has been notably silent on these attacks. 

Unexpected project outcomes:
The FCO has given public assurances that any risks that its training could be misused were assessed in its initial scoping work for the project.[29] Clearly this work concluded that the risks were low. But it is unclear what evidence there is for this assertion.

Past practice suggests less cause for self confidence. For example, in 2004 ‘Non lethal assistance’ in the form of helicopters and Islander planes were given to the Royal Nepal Army during the Maoist conflict. The British MOD issued confident guarantees about the equipment not being misused, hence ‘non lethal’.[30] But as The Guardian newspaper later revealed, by 2005 it was clear that the UK’s confidence had been badly misplaced. 
“the most embarrassing development in the military tactics of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) involves two Islander aircraft given to Nepal in 2004, ironically as part of a $4.8m package from the Conflict Prevention Fund. Britain claims not to have supplied lethal aid to Nepal but, as Amnesty International says, there was no end use monitoring to ensure that the aircraft were not later fitted with armaments. Several witness reports have described the use of the Islanders to support the RNA's most lethal tactic - the bombing from helicopters of Nepalese villagers”.[31]

Despite the clear breach of a written guarantee, the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) failed to take any action. Another example, again from Nepal, was the award of a UK Chevening Scholarship to Lieutenant Colonel Ajit Thapa of the then Royal Nepal Army, to study security sector reform in the UK in 2007. Thapa was earlier named as the primary alleged perpetrator in the UN OHCHR investigation[32] of human rights abuses committed in the Bardiya region of Nepal.[33] Again this did not result in any direct impact on support to the Nepal Army.  However, this has subsequently resulted in the establishment of a vetting system within the Embassy, something that the UK BHC in Dhaka might usefully consider.


The increasing use of extrajudicial execution by the RAB suggests that FCO’s assistance should be a subject of considerable concern, not least for the British Government. British Ministers should be aware that FCO assurances about the abuse of its assistance are not supported by experience elsewhere. In Nepal, the RNA broke a clear, specific and written agreement with the British Government. This was not sufficient grounds for withdrawing support. When the RNA put forward a serving officer accused by the UN of multiple killings, disappearance, and torture to be trained at the British tax payers’ expense, again, there was no change in UK’s assistance to the Nepal Army.[34]

While the UK government was very vocal about rights in Nepal, its concern appears to have been de-linked from assistance. It is unclear how this methodology was supposed to leverage change.  Certainly, results of a decade of the UK’s human rights work in Nepal are difficult to discern. The Nepal Army remains a primary threat to Nepal’s unstable peace and despite repeated high level Ministerial intervention, not a single Nepal Army officer has been prosecuted.

While the British Government is making extraordinary budgetary cuts to its domestic spending, in Bangladesh, the British tax payer is being asked to foot the bill to support training the RAB that Human Rights Watch has not inaccurately described as a death squad. 

Engagement is the standard response given by the UK to criticism: ‘we have a problem and we will only find a solution if we engage. If we don’t engage we avoid the problem’ runs the standard argument. 

As stated above, ACHR is not opposed to engagement. But ACHR opposes engagement where it appears to be mistaken for outcome rather than part of a process.  ‘Support allows us to engage with key agents of change within the institution’ runs another defensive line. But if having a relationship with key actors in the RAB is not converted into results, the value of the relationship is open to question.

ACHR recommends that UK suspend its cooperation to RAB immediately, even though it ends in March. The British Government needs to demonstrate that its assistance has a bottom line. The institutional use of murder and torture by the RAB is not the place for fuzzy and uncountable concepts of ‘awareness’ and ‘capacity built’. Process is not an outcome.

If engagement is the chosen path then the political support inherent in funding should be understood. It must be used as leverage for change. While sections of Dhaka’s elite may be comfortable with the practices of the RAB, external support should not. If assistance is to be extended, project design must include stringent conditions that must include an end to torture and extrajudicial executions by the RAB and accountability for violations of these non-derogable rights. Further, the British government must ensure transparency in its assistance and evaluation of its assistance. Unless these guarantees could be secured, it is unclear how any future assistance will produce results.

The renewal of support without these conditions will provide political support for a death squad, again at the expense of the British tax payers. And it will serve only to fuel further growing concern over the political motivations behind that support; motivations that include growing evidence of British collusion in acts of torture and secret interrogation in Bangladesh.[35]

Finally, while not the focus of this paper, the support for the RAB is one example that suggests that the external environment for Western bilateral human rights assistance has changed fundamentally.

The West and the UK in particular, needs to understand that the consequences of their ‘war on terror’ have real implications for human rights development assistance. The involvement of UK intelligence agencies in torture and rendition, including in Bangladesh, raises real questions of the perception and credibility of FCO human rights funding as a whole.

The commonality of the concerns expressed by FCO/MoD projects run in Nepal and Bangladesh should concern Ministers in the UK as it would appear to suggest that this flawed methodology is being applied more widely than Bangladesh.  The rhetoric of the war on terror may have been apparently jettisoned by the UK but there is little evidence that the place of human rights within questions of security occupies any greater priority than it did at the height of the Blair administration.

In the context, if the Bangladeshi elite misinterpret the UK’s work on human rights, then the UK should understand that they bear some of the responsibility.


[1]. Quoted in the Daily Star Newspaper, ‘UK trained RAB: Wikileaks’, Daily Star online edition, 22 December 2010,

[2]. Investigate extrajudicial killings: NHRC,, 9 February 2011, available at

[3]. The Guardian Newspaper interactive database

[4]. ‘Replying to another question if the UK government would revise its decision on cooperation with Rab, which has been condemned internationally for extrajudicial killing, Evans said UK’s training is designed to help Rab improve their standards of compliance with human rights and the training is appropriate in this area.’ Quoted from the Daily Star Bangladesh ‘'UK trained Rab with full respect to human rights', Tuesday 8 February 2011,

[5]. Quoted from Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track, Crisis Group Asia Report N°182, 11 December 2009,

[6]. UK FCO website available at

[7]. Odhikar 2010 Annual Report on Human Rights Violations,

[8]. TIKN News, ‘Bangladesh: PM meets HR leaders: an insider’s account’, 2nd February 2010, Bangladesh: PM meets HR leaders: an insider’s account

[9]. ACHR notes in this regard, the very limited support and political priority of civil and political rights amongst the donors. The low priority of human rights, and then often unfocussed nature of human rights funding, within existing development assistance does not appear to adequately reflect the gravity of the human rights environment, or a particularly clear analysis.

[10]. Quoted from Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track, Crisis Group Asia Report N°182, 11 December 2009,

[11]. US Cable Monday, 11 August 2008, 08:10, C O N F I D E N T I A L DHAKA 000856 reported in the Guardian Newspaper,

[12]. See US Cable C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DHAKA 000057,

[13]. International Crisis Group report: NEPAL: PEACE AND JUSTICE Asia Report N°184 – 14 January 2010

[14].  Ambassador Michael E. Malinowski

[15]. Quoted from Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track, Crisis Group Asia Report N°182, 11 December 2009,

[16]. FCO Annual Report 2009,


[18]. See for example, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve Thomas Carothers Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999

[19]. idem

[20]. See below in footnote 4 and 5.

[21]. Guardian newspaper, ‘Bangladesh 'death squad' trained by UK police resumes extrajudicial killing’, Wednesday 26 January 2011

[22]. See Odhikar 2010 Annual Report on Human Rights Violations,

[23].   See Odhikar 2009 Annual Report on Human Rights Violations,

[24]. Idem

[25]. Guardian newspaper, ‘Bangladesh 'death squad' trained by UK police resumes extrajudicial killing’, Wednesday 26 January 2011

[26]. The Daily Star newspaper ‘Sahara defends lawmen again’, 28 January 2011,

[27]. Daily Star newspaper, ‘HR bodies siding with criminals: Sahara’ Daily Star 26 January 2011,

[28]. The Daily Star newspaper ‘Sahara defends lawmen again’, 28 January 2011,

[29]. Guardian newspaper, ‘Bangladesh 'death squad' trained by UK police resumes extrajudicial killing’, Wednesday 26 January 2011

[30]. The MOD claimed that: "the two short Take off and Landing (STOL) BN2T valued at £2.7M forms part of the surveillance capability. They are unarmed and do not constitute a significant transport capability. We will set out prior to the gift in a letter to the Government of Nepal the conditions on use of these aircraft including that they remain unarmed. Quoted from Amnesty International report ‘Nepal Military assistance contributing to grave human rights violations’,

[31]. Isabel Hilton, Guardian newspaper, ‘In cahoots with the king’, Guardian online edition, Tuesday 11 April 2006,


[33]. International Crisis Group report: NEPAL: PEACE AND JUSTICE
Asia Report N°184 – 14 January 2010


[35]. See the Guardian newspaper, ‘Bangladesh interrogation centre where Britons were taken to be tortured’, Ian Cobain, and Fariha Karim in Dhaka, Monday 17 January ,