Bangladesh’s participation in this year’s General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA), including the fringe events that take place in and around the high level General Debate, was of particular importance in light of the year that had lapsed since the outbreak of the Rohingya refugee crisis - perhaps the most intense of a number of such crises driven by war and inhumanity around the world today, that are playing havoc with the world order and fuelling the rise of populist hard right movements in a number of Western polities.
In 2017, the Rohingya crisis in its latest and most intense iteration (it has been ongoing for nearly four decades now, what C.R. Abrar has described as a “slowburn genocide”) was still too early and too little was understood about it for world leaders to take a resolute stand one way or the other. Indeed, even historically we would find that the plight of the Rohingya has received very little international attention, part of what drove Amnesty International to once christen them “the world’s most persecuted people”. The inadequate attention it has received at the UN’s annual shindig in the past merely reflected this gap in the world’s consciousness.
This time however was a different story, with nearly the full scale of the horror that was inflicted upon the hapless Rohingya by the Myanmar army under the guise of a cleanup operation against extremist elements that commenced in August 2017, having emerged - and gone viral - in full view of the world over the course of the past one year. Witness the plethora of leaders and celebrities who have visited the refugee camps scattered across Cox’s Bazaar mostly throughout 2018, as if in a hurry to make up for the history of neglect.
World media too has not missed the opportunity for putting all the misery - the salt among all the ingredients that make up the news on a daily basis - on display, while advocacy groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have also tackled the issue with a gusto not seen before over the past one year. All of this meant an unprecedented groundswell of interest around the Rohingya issue as world leaders started gathering in the Turtle Bay area of New York that hosts the UN premises.
Prior to this year’s meeting, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for Myanmar to be held accountable for “one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises” following the publication of a UN investigation into alleged atrocities against the Rohingya.
The report recommended that the country’s military leadership be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Rakhine State last year, where around 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes.
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called for strong and immediate action against the Myanmar leadership, while Chinese ambassador Wu Haitao urged a softer approach based on “constructive assistance”.
As a result one of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s first engagements upon arrival in New York saw her placing three recommendations to solve the protracted Rohingya crisis from its root, at a high-level side event on the ‘Global Compact on Refugees: A Model for Greater Solidarity and Cooperation’ held at the UN headquarters with the secretary-general in the chair.
In 2016 the UN refugee agency began developing a new framework for responding to large movements of refugees. The Global Compact on Refugees was delivered to the UN general assembly through this event.
Thick end of a crisis
The prime minister’s first recommendation was to abolish discriminatory laws, policies and practices by Myanmar against Rohingyas. Her second recommendation was that Myanmar must create conducive environment by building trust and guaranteeing protection, rights and pathway to citizenship for all Rohingyas. If needed, create a ‘safe zone’ inside Myanmar to protect all civilians. The third recommendation was to prevent atrocious crimes against Rohingyas in Myanmar by bringing accountability and justice, particularly in light of the recommendations of the Fact-Finding Mission of the UN Human Rights Council.
“In Bangladesh, now we’re faced with the largest forced movement of over 1.1 million traumatised Rohingya sat the shortest time. They’ve been forcibly displaced from their homes in Rakhine State of Myanmar where they had been living for centuries,” she told her audience.
The prime minister went on saying, “While we’re providing them with basic necessities, the magnitude of the problem has posed serious challenges for us. We’ve allocated over 6,000 acres of land.”
Hasina, however, said the diversion of human and other resources for Rohingyas has taken a toll on the environment, economy and society. She mentioned that the international partners, especially the UN agencies, have been helping the Rohingyas.
“Regrettably, the current UN joint response plan of 2018 which requires USD 950 million has remained severely underfunded with only 33 percent funding secured. Humanitarian and development support of the international community for the Rohingyas and other affected communities must be predictable and in the spirit of international responsibility sharing,” the PM said.
Hasina reiterated that the Rohingya crisis originated in Myanmar and the solution has to be found there.“As a responsible government, we’ve opened our border and provided shelter to the forcibly displaced Rohingyas. By doing so, we’ve not only saved lives, but also stabilised the entire region by containing the crisis within our border.”
She said Bangladesh would like to see the Rohingyas returning to the homes in safety, security and dignity.“Pending their return, we are trying to address their basic needs.”
Given the scarcity of land and other socio-cultural and environmental impacts, Hasina said they were going to relocate them to a newly developed island, Bhashan Char, where they will have better living conditions and livelihood opportunities. In the absence of any policy of local integration in Bangladesh, she said, Rohingyas need to secure their future in their own country Myanmar. The prime minister urged international community to help Bangladesh achieve that.
Hasina said the ‘Compact on Refugees’ was up for adoption at a time when the world is faced with swelling refugee crisis. Innocent people from the various conflict-torn countries are leaving their homes for safety and security while many countries like Bangladesh are giving them shelter, protection and hope.
She mentioned that most of these refugee-hosting countries are developing countries with their own set of challenges. “Yet, they respond to the call of humanity.”
The world must recognize their contributions and help those countries shoulder the burden. The world leaders must come forward with political will and commitment, she added. The prime minister said the world must not forget that every refugee desires a safe return to his or her homeland. The displaced people from Myanmar have to return to their homes in safety, security and dignity.
“Safe and sustainable return to the country of origin is particularly important to resolve protracted refugee crisis. Greater attention needs to be paid to remove the root causes that drive people refugee, and those root causes lie in the countries of origin,” she said.
The prime minister said the realisation of the Compact should exhibit stronger commitment towards addressing those root causes; rather than focusing on response to an emerging situation only.
The Global Compact on refugees was conceived in September 2016, when the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which is “a set of commitments to enhance the protection of refugees and migrants.” The New York Declaration called upon the UNHCR to create a “global compact on refugees” to be presented in the 2018 annual report to the UN General Assembly.
The Compact aims to strengthen cooperation between UN member states in responding to large movements of refugees. It consists of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which are the key elements for a thorough response to any large movement of refugees. The Global Compact will also provide a blueprint to “ensure refugees have better access to health, education and livelihood opportunities.”
When one nation is confronted with a large movement of refugees, the global compact aims to alleviate that burden so that a country does not become overwhelmed. There should be systems in place so governments can share responsibility in a crisis, which is based on the rationale that the members of the international community work better together, than alone. The compact is expected to be endorsed by the General Assembly before the end of 2018.
On the same day, September 24, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian co-hosted a High-Level Event on the Rohingya Crisis. Ministers from Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh were joined by high level attendees from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Turkey and the US. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener and UN Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner also participated.
The Co-Chairs (France and the UK) agreed that the plight of the Rohingya was one of the largest refugee crises in recent history and one of the most pressing human rights and humanitarian crises facing the international community today. They noted with deep concern the conclusions of the report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission, which allege the Burmese military’s responsibility for serious human rights violations, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity and which conclude that there is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Burmese army so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine state.
France and the UK noted that over the past year the Burmese government had taken some steps to address the crisis, including the signing of the MoU between Burma/Myanmar and UNDP and UNHCR and the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI). The Co-Chairs acknowledged the ruling of the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber that the Court may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh as well as over the alleged crime against humanity.
They recalled their support to the efforts of the Human Rights Council to implement the conclusions of the Fact-Finding mission and to push for accountability, including through an independent Mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Burma/Myanmar.
The meeting also called for the immediate release of the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Ooo as well as for the respect for their fundamental rights.
They also thanked the government and people of Bangladesh for hosting more than a million refugees. They encouraged the international community to continue and intensify support for the refugees and Bangladeshi host communities, including through increasing financial support to the UN Joint Response Plan.
At the UNGA Hall
Before delivering her speech at the General Debate, the prime minister also took part in the high-level “Leaders’ Dialogue on Climate Change: Implementation of the Paris Agreement Towards COP24 and Beyond” held at the UN Headquarters, where she urged the developed countries and world leaders to come forward with support for climate change adaptation and wider ‘capacity building’.
“We need support for climate change adaptation and wider ‘capacity building’ and also for technology development and transfer in areas like agriculture, public health and disaster management,” she said.
At the General Debate, the prime minister demanded immediate and effective implementation of the agreement signed between Myanmar and the UN on the solution of the Rohingya crisis.
“We also wish to see immediate and effective implementation of the agreement concluded between Myanmar and the UN,” she said while delivering her address at the General Debate of the 73rd UN General Assembly on September 28. She delivered her speech in Bangla as in previous years.
She said Bangladesh was appalled by what it has seen in UN reports about atrocities against the Rohingyas who have now taken shelter in Bangladesh, which are tantamount to genocide and crimes against humanity. “We expect the international community, particularly the UN, to give due importance to the atrocities and injustice suffered by the Rohingya population in Myanmar,” she said. The prime minister said Bangladesh can neither ignore nor remain silent about the plight of the Rohingya, their ‘fellow human beings’.
“I, therefore, presented a five-point proposal at the UN General Assembly last year with a view to finding a durable and peaceful solution to the sufferings of the forcibly displaced and hapless Rohingya. We’re disappointed that despite our earnest efforts, we haven’t been able to begin Rohingya repatriation in a permanent and sustainable manner,” she said.
Mentioning that Myanmar is one of Bangladesh’s neighbours, she said from the outset, it has been trying to find a peaceful solution to the Rohingya crisis through bilateral consultations. “So far, three bilateral arrangements have been concluded between Bangladesh and Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation,” she said, adding that despite their verbal commitment to take back the Rohingya, in reality, the Myanmar authorities are yet to accept them back.
Hasina said the 1.1 million Rohingyas (700,000 nin the latest exodus, to go with 400,000 since 1978) hosted in Bangladesh are living in an uncertain situation. To the best of its ability, Bangladesh has made arrangements for their food, clothing, healthcare, child-care and security, she said. She noted how many countries and organisations, including the UN, the Commonwealth, and the OIC, have shown solidarity with the Rohingyas and extended support and assistance for them.
The prime minister said Bangladesh has started working on a new housing facility with all arrangements for their education, healthcare and other needs so that they are able to live in a good and healthy condition. She called upon international organisations to join hands with Bangladesh in this initiative.
She said the Myanmar situation repeatedly reminds her of the genocide committed by the Pakistan occupation forces against Bangalis in 1971 - thereby opening the door to a possible future campaign to have those atrocities recognised as genocide.
Talking about terrorism, she said Bangladesh stands firm against terrorism and all organised crimes. “We shall not allow our territory to be used for any terrorist acts against or any activity detrimental to the interest of our neighbours. Our ‘zero tolerance’ policy in countering terrorism will continue undiminished,” she said.
Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh has commenced its journey toward the status of a developing country from an LDC. In the backdrop of Bangladesh’s current economic growth, she said, there are now immense and large-scale business opportunities in Bangladesh.
She also mentioned that Bangladesh remains committed to implementing the Paris Agreement and is spending over 1 percent of its GDP in addressing climate change impacts. “We’re also promoting climate-resilient agriculture. Initiatives have been taken to increase tree coverage from 22 percent to 24 percent in the next five years,” she said.
She said Bangladesh was shocked by the continued violation of the rights of the brotherly people of Palestine. “This must come to an end. As the Chair of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers, we shall continue to work with the international community for resolution of the Palestine question.”
Sheikh Hasina said there are three elements that play the most critical part in advancing human civilization -- peace, humanity and development. “For the well-being of human societies, we must continue to strive for humanity. Our main objective must be to serve people and ensure their well-being. It is humanity and goodwill that would take us forward on the pathway to sustainable development.”
Noting that Bangladesh once was known to the world as the land plagued by disasters, floods, droughts and hunger, she said it has done wonders in maintaining international peace, managing disasters, empowering women and consolidating development gains. “Bangladesh has now surpassed its neighbours in South Asia on a number of indicators.”
“But our journey has not reached its end. Our journey will continue till the day we can build a Bangladesh free of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and exploitation,’’ the prime minister concluded, on a suitable note of optimism and hope to inspire all people.