Dhaka Courier

Multilateralism and its discontents


The institutions and systems that were born out of the ashes of World War II, including the United Nations, have allowed societies across the globe to flourish. Through shared responsibility and accountability, the UN helped reduce, if not abolish, inter-state war, famine and poverty in many cases. That is not to say that things are perfect, nor that the UN has an unimpeachable record, far from it, but it is clear that addressing these issues as a united group of nations offers much more promise of success and sustainability.

When it comes to Bangladesh, the expectations of its people from the UN are very high for many reasons, including its contributions to peacekeeping. Having started its engagement in UN peacekeeping missions in 1988 with a contingent of just 15 military observers deployed in Iraq, over the years their participation kept growing till as of 2014, Bangladesh contributed the highest number of total personnel to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, with 8,758 personnel attached to various UN peacekeeping forces worldwide. Today, Bangladesh takes a leading role in the deployment of more women in peacekeeping, in light of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

When the persecuted Rohingya minority from neighbouring Myanmar started pouring into Cox’s Bazar two years back, Bangladesh, a country of 164 million people, looked to the UN to play a stronger role. Despite being one of the most densely populated nations on the planet, Bangladesh today hosts over 1.1 million Rohingyas, most of them having entered the country after August 25, 2017.

After a second attempt to repatriate the Rohingya refugee population failed in August, on the back of Myanmar’s failure to address the refugees’ concerns for safety, the people of Bangladesh started asking themselves: What are the options available to the international community from the UN perspective, in dealing with a state like Myanmar? Is the UN able to step in and prevent states from having the kind of discriminatory, archaic citizenship law that a state like Myanmar adopts? Now it has become increasingly complex, to find a durable solution to the crisis which the UN itself calls “the textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.  This changing context has brought about new challenges for Bangladesh and the UN, too.

Amid the evolving situation, Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Bangladeshi conglomerate The Cosmos Group, hosted a symposium as part of its Cosmos Dialogues Distinguished Speaker Series, titled “The Relevance of the United Nations for Bangladesh: A Prognosis for Partnership”.

Delivering the keynote address at the symposium, former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations Lord George Mark Malloch-Brown stated that there is no quick fix to the Rohingya issue, and urged the international community to put pressure on Myanmar to resolve the issue.

“This is a classic dilemma of refugees … The reality is, these [refugee] problems don’t lend themselves to quick fixes. It’s a steady problem,” he said.

Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan delivered the welcome address at the event held with Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Principal Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, in the chair.

Malloch Brown (only with the title is the name hyphenated) said it requires “a great depth of patience and humanity” on Bangladesh’s side to manage this issue because a refugee population of that size in the part of the country is a huge burden.

“I don’t disagree with the assertion that not the UN but the states have not been forthcoming on with the political pressure on Myanmar to arrive at a solution,” he said.

Malloch Brown, who moved on from his UN career to a job in the British government as minister for Asia, Africa and the UN under Gordon Brown, said a lot of political changes need to occur in Myanmar and the international community must exert pressure on it to secure that change. “I appeal to Bangladesh for patience,” he said, noting that these are not refugees who want to stay. But although they want to return, the conditions have to be created to enable them to do that.

‘A systemic failure’

Indeed, the Rohingya are the ones who probably have the most reason to be aggrieved by the UN, and that is by its own admission. Earlier this year, a damning report by the UN on its own conduct in Myanmar condemned the organisation’s “obviously dysfunctional performance” over the past decade and concluded there was a systemic failure.

The report was commissioned by Secretary General António Guterres after accusations that the UN system ignored warning signs of escalating violence before an alleged genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority.

The report, written by a Guatemalan former foreign minister, Gert Rosenthal, concludes there were various damaging failures, including competing strategies between agencies, a “culture of mistrust” in relations with Myanmar’s government and “mixed and incomplete signals coming from the field”

“Without question, serious errors were committed and opportunities were lost in the UN system following a fragmented strategy rather than a common plan of action,” Rosenthal writes. “The overall responsibility was of a collective nature; in other words it can truly be characterised as a systemic failure of the United Nations.”

Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state in August 2017. The violence, which the UN described as ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, included the killing of thousands of people, the rape of women and children and the razing of villages. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh.

Rosenthal’s report emphasises the damaging impact of competing strategies between some UN agencies and individuals. The polarisation of approaches between quiet diplomacy with the Myanmar government and public condemnation of escalating human rights abuses became more magnified as the situation in Rakhine worsened, the report says.

“Even at the highest level of the organisation there was no common strategy,” Rosenthal writes. As a result, the UN system was “relatively impotent to effectively work with the authorities of Myanmar to reverse the negative trends in the area of human rights”.

The situation descended into “unseemly fighting” where “those that promote constructive engagement sometimes incur the wrath of those who favour a more robust advocacy role and vice versa,” the report says. “One can only speculate that [former] Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was either unwilling or unable to arbitrate a common stance between these two competing perspectives.”

Rosenthal emphasises that he did not investigate particular individuals, but his report addresses the controversial actions of the former resident coordinator for Myanmar, Renata Lok-Dessallien, who was accused of downplaying concerns about worsening abuses against the Rohingya to further her development agenda.

The report says Lok-Dessallien was brought in to push forward a development agenda, and she “suddenly found herself embroiled in a situation with strong political overtones,” which was not her area of expertise. Despite pleas for assistance, Lok-Dessallien was “understaffed and without clear instructions from headquarters”.

The secretary-general’s decision to commission an investigation, and to release and accept all the recommendations in the Rosenthal report, was praised as a valuable first step by a coalition of INGOs. Additionally, they urged him to “act to prevent future UN failures in the face of atrocities.”

Holding the line

Nevertheless, as a staunch advocate of the UN as a force for good in the world, Malloch Brown said he believes the UN understands the frustration in Bangladesh and the need to find a solution. “I think [the UN] wants to work with Bangladesh in this coming session of the UNGA to make sure that this issue gets the political prominence and it needs to move towards a solution,” he said.

Malloch Brown said, “I think a critical bit of Bangladesh’s soft power of its global leadership comes from handling these problems with patience and humanity, however difficult the political challenge is,” he said.

Describing Bangladesh as a six-footer in a region of seven footers, he praised the country’s rapid economic growth but noted that Bangladesh was like one of those medium-sized powers which need the UN as the global guarantor.

The former UN Deputy Secretary General said Bangladesh’s graduation from LDC status reflected the dramatic economic success of recent years but the country’s development journey is by no means finished.

“My appeal to you is to look at the UN as the source of dramatic dynamism and to realise that Bangladesh’s time has come. It’s for countries like Bangladesh who are in the frontline because they are hosts of refugees, they are contributors to peacekeepers. It is for countries like Bangladesh to step forward and make the UN work for these different new times we live in,” he added.

Speaking on the occasion as special guest, Planning Minister MA Mannan said the UN bodies tremendously helped Bangladesh during the difficult days following its liberation. “So, UN is very relevant for a country like Bangladesh which sometimes faces difficult situations for geopolitical reasons.”

He, however, said there are some valued UN organisations like FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), WHO (World Health Organisation) and ILO (International Labour Organisation) that need to be revamped now. The minister said the ILO has become a victim of global political difficulties and the body cannot deliver now on the objectives with which it was formed.

Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said Bangladesh has always been attaching huge importance to multilateralism since its birth and that still continues. “We have a strong relationship with the UN and its affiliated bodies and huge support for them.”

“We’ve given lots of things to the UN not only in terms of our hummable financial contributions, but also our political contributions. Bangladesh is always been instrumental in the peace-building exercise both in the commission and others,” he observed.

Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan said as Bangladesh continues to march forward, the Cosmos Foundation would aspire to provide the “intellectual infrastructure” to support this phenomenon. He said the symposium was arranged not just to underscore what Bangladesh does for the UN but also how a major element of the UN Charter in terms of global peace and stability can be suitably delivered.

Noted foreign affairs experts, foreign envoys stationed in Dhaka, former ambassadors, academics, lawyers and civil society members took part in the interactive session.

  • Multilateralism and its discontents
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 10
  • Courier Briefing
  • DhakaCourier

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