Diversify trade basket to boost exports to Switzerland; beyond, he says

Switzerland established diplomatic ties with Bangladesh soon after Bangladesh's independence in 1971. Bangladesh and Switzerland have long standing bilateral relations which are based on mutual respect and partnership. Ambassador of Switzerland to Bangladesh René Holenstein talked to Dhaka Courier on various aspects of relations with special focus and Rohingya and trade issues.

Ambassador Holenstein thinks the international community must work closely with Bangladesh and Myanmar so that the issues of safety and protection of the Rohingyas and the work toward a voluntary and peaceful repatriation in safety and dignity are addressed in an effective and comprehensive manner.

"In this regard, Switzerland calls for the immediate implementation of the recommendations stipulated in the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by Kofi Annan," he said.

Terming the Rohingya refugee crisis as essentially a "political crisis", the envoy said Switzerland encourages national, regional and international efforts towards a political solution to this crisis.

"Switzerland stands ready to offer its good services," said Ambassador Holenstein adding that the joint visit of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who were accompanied by other senior UN officials, is a clear sign that the international community is concerned about this crisis and stands ready to support both Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve this crisis.

The Swiss President Alain Berset during his Bangladesh visit in February went to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.

"In fact, one of the main objectives of this Presidential visit was to express solidarity with Bangladesh which is severely affected by this humanitarian crisis," he said.

Since September 2017, a number of other senior Swiss officials have visited the refugee camps.

"I am particularly worried about the cyclone and monsoon season, which requires a high degree of preparedness to ensure safety of the Rohingya refugees living in these settlements," said the Swiss Ambassador who personally visited the Rohingya settlements in Cox's Bazar many times.

The influx of new Rohingya arrivals, he said have put enormous pressure on Bangladesh in general, and on the host community as well. "The needs in the camps are still very high," said the envoy.

"It is important to execute well-coordinated and adequate responses by the Government of Bangladesh, the UN and the international community addressing the Rohingya refugees as well as the host community who are severely affected by this crisis," the Ambassador while responding to a question.

Switzerland commended the Government and the people of Bangladesh for the assistance and protection offered on humanitarian grounds to the Rohingya refugees despite various socio-economic and political predicaments.

Switzerland commended also the United Nations and all humanitarian agencies for their swift and professional response to the refugee crisis.

"The work of Bangladesh, the UN Agencies and the national and international NGOs has been essential to alleviate the suffering of the refugee population, support the host communities and uphold human rights standards," Ambassador said.

Ambassador Holenstein commended Bangladesh again for accepting the Rohingya refugees in an exemplary way and providing them with shelter and assistance despite various challenges and limitations.

"I understand that the congestion in the Rohingya refugee camps poses a major problem for both refugees and host communities as these are very densely populated," he said.

Holenstein mentioned that Switzerland supports the improvement of standards of refugee settlements and the planning of new sites, which are feasible and practicable, ensuring safety and security of the refugees.

Regarding Bhasan Char Island, the envoy said, "I think it is not clear to the international community if relocation to such an environment is safe, feasible and practicable."

In this regard, he highlighted that all efforts towards resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis must be guided by humanitarian principles and respect for obligations under international law, in particular human rights law.

Swiss Support Continues

Switzerland was one of the first countries to respond to this latest crisis with humanitarian assistance, including financial and in kind support.

The Swiss Humanitarian Aid channeled 8 million Swiss Francs/US$ 8 million in 2017 in emergency humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya arrivals, the diplomat said.

The Swiss President during his visit announced that Switzerland will remain engaged in the humanitarian efforts also in 2018 with additional support of 12 million Swiss Francs.

"Swiss humanitarian assistance is contributing to providing food, water, as well as heath and sanitation services to the Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar," he said. The Swiss envoy said their support will benefit also the host communities in the Cox's Bazar area, which have been affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Total Swiss financial humanitarian assistance therefore stands at 20 million Swiss Francs.

In addition to this, Swiss experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit are deployed in Cox's Bazar who are supporting agencies operating as well, he mentioned.

"Switzerland has always stood beside Bangladesh in its humanitarian efforts at times of need, including the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis," said Ambassador Holenstein.

Hopeful of Inclusive Polls

Ambassador Holenstein said the year 2018 is "very important" for the people of Bangladesh as the national election will take place at the end of this year.

"As a friend of Bangladesh, it is our sincere hope that the next election, held in a free, fair and inclusive manner, will further bolster the democratic strides made by the country," the envoy said.

Ambassador Holenstein said like Switzerland or any other nation, the topic of human rights is very much important for Bangladesh. "Human rights are enshrined as fundamental rights in the constitution of Bangladesh."

Responding to a question, he said drug trafficking is a global problem, which has to be responded by maintaining a moral high ground and upholding the rule of law and access to justice.

Diversification Pays Dividend

The Swiss Ambassador says said Bangladesh should diversify its trade basket and place focus on new sectors - leather, ceramic, IT - to boost its exports to Switzerland and beyond, which is currently limited to apparel products mainly.

"The trade figure may look small compared to Bangladesh's trade with other countries but what impresses me is that the bilateral trade has almost tripled since 2010 and is expected to cross $1 billion mark in the coming years," he said.

The Ambassador has regular exchanges with the Swiss companies operating in Bangladesh as well as the representatives of the Bangladeshi business community who tell him about the business opportunities and challenges in Bangladesh.

"The main challenges identified by the investors I talk to are namely, infrastructural limitations, bureaucratic red-tape, weak policy implementation and insufficient legal security," he said while responding to a question.

The diplomat said Bangladesh should address these issues "in a more emphatic manner" to boost potential and existing investors' confidence to attract more FDI.

"I am confident that with further improved infrastructure and energy supply, regulatory predictability and legal security, Bangladesh will become a more preferred destination for the Swiss businesses in the future," he said.

The boom in the textiles and chemical sectors is making Bangladesh an attractive place for Swiss investment, said the Swiss Ambassador.

In 2017 bilateral trade volume between Switzerland and Bangladesh recorded an impressive growth of more than 14 percent totaling 676.8 million Swiss Francs.

"Investments and reinvestments from the Swiss companies in Bangladesh are also increasing steadily," he said.

Mentioning that Switzerland has a strong focus on innovation and technology, the envoy said, "I see potentials for Swiss companies providing technological solutions to Bangladesh in the coming days."

He said they have to also identify new areas of economic cooperation - hi-tech, clean-tech, renewable energy - where the two countries can mutually benefit from the collaboration

Inclusive Growth Matters

During the Presidential visit in February 2018, the Swiss President and Prime Minister of Bangladesh welcomed the positive developments of bilateral trade and investment and stressed the need to further strengthen the bilateral relations including in the area of trade and investment

"Bangladesh's aspirations for 2021 and its remarkable socio-economic achievements in the last decades are impressive. To accelerate this growth in an inclusive and sustainable manner, it is important to continue to respect the fundamental human rights principles in the country," he said.

The diplomat said at present, development and economic cooperation are the two main pillars of bilateral relations between the two countries. "Cultural ties are also expanding rapidly."

The two countries regularly have high level exchanges.

Bilateral relations "received renewed momentum" during the visit of the President of the Swiss Confederation Alain Berset, in February 2018.

"During this important visit, which is indeed a milestone in the bilateral relations, our two countries placed strong emphasis on forging closer economic and technological cooperation," Ambassador Holenstein said.

Since his arrival in Bangladesh, almost a year ago, Ambassador Holenstein has visited most of the divisions in Bangladesh.

"Wherever I went, I felt genuine warmth and curiosity of the people towards Switzerland as well as its people."

He said, "I can confidently say that the relations between our two friendly countries are stronger now than ever before."

The Ambassador said Switzerland has remained a steady and committed development partner of Bangladesh.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC is present in Bangladesh for a long time.

The current Swiss development cooperation strategy for Bangladesh has a duration of four-year covering 2018-2021.

The Swiss cooperation strategy is aligned with the Agenda 2030 and Bangladesh's national goals and focuses on three areas namely, Democratic Governance, Income and Economic Development, and Safer Migration.

Switzerland's annual contribution stands at around US$22 million excluding humanitarian assistance.

Responding to a question he said Switzerland has been able to play an important role in specific domains particularly in the areas of poverty reduction, social inclusion as well as disaster risk reduction over the last four and a half decade.

"Switzerland will continue to support Bangladesh's development with targeted interventions to support the poor, marginalised and vulnerable population," he said.

The diplomat said Switzerland will also continue to cooperate closely with the government of Bangladesh and the civil society bodies in the area of democracy and human rights.

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