Championing the vulnerable

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Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Photo: AP/UNB

The Bangladesh prime minister pleaded the case on behalf of the vulnerable in New York. But did the rich and powerful bloc relent?

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s attendance at this year’s pared-down General Assembly of the United Nations, the annual gathering of world leaders in New York City that isn’t always choc-a-bloc full of tangible or concrete gains for the participating delegations. Nobody really comes home from the UNGA touting multi-billion dollar deals for infrastructure or generous packages of aid, and certainly not arms purchases or security contracts. This isn’t the stage or the occasion for counting in the conventional sense what a nation ‘gains’ from its leader’s taxpayer-funded visits abroad.

Held every year since 1945 (except 2020, no prizes here for guessing why) to coincide with the arrival of autumn in New York, it is too frequent and too large to allow for any specificity in aims or actions, and the same really goes for whatever passes for a nation’s ‘gains’ in orthodox usage.

Forged and then reimagined in the shadow of two World Wars, it probably felt imperative in the early days to have every member-state turn up at an annual roll call and reaffirm their commitment to fraternity among nations – or at least those nations that have managed also to scrape together a state they can call their own.

Turn up, and you are guaranteed the opportunity to have your say with a speaking slot –officially 15 minutes, but obviously nobody will dare to cut off a world leader for going over the time allotted.  People like Fidel Castro, the late Cuban leader, would go on for hours at the height of their revolutionary pomp.

Absence at this forum probably wouldn’t cost a country its bridges or natural resources, but it would signal an isolation or withdrawal. Generally it is unheard of without some great strife or emergency. So the question from an ‘expatriate Bangladeshi journalist’ at a press conference organised by the Awami League’s US chapter certainly had flimsy foundations, and should have been easily dealt with. Was he suggesting the PM, and by extension Bangladesh, should have skipped the UNGA? Even though the list of 100 in-person attendees was decided by UN headquarters? Could he specify what he understood as ‘gains’ by pointing to some other nations’ gains from the event?

The reaction it instead invoked inside the venue for the presser was an embarrassment to the US-Bangladeshi community, a blot on its generally good name, and for the nation as well. The NYPD has been roped in to investigate a charge of assault against the journalist in question, Farid Alam of the community-based outlet NCN, and the US State Department acknowledged the incident had come to their knowledge, though its reaction sounded more mealy-mouthed than anything it would really care to follow up on.

A major reason that Bangladesh was chosen among the 100 in-person attendees – around half its membership -had to do with its current chairing of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which brings together on a single platform the 48 countries that suffer most disproportionately from the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. With this year’s UN-led climate conference in Glasgow (COP26) shaping up to contain the biggest push for progress on behalf of the planet since Paris 2015, Dhaka’s stewardship of the CVF comes at a crucial juncture, and its presence in forums leading upto Glasgow will of course be vital for ‘climate justice’ for the most vulnerable. Indeed, that its presence is also felt, on behalf of 47 other CVF members.

So it came as no surprise that the PM’s first engagement of note during her stay in New York was to attend a closed-door leaders’ meeting arranged for a small group of heads of state and governments on Climate Change, that was held at the Trusteeship Council of the UN Headquarters on September 20.

“Finally, we need a ‘whole-of-the-world’ approach to leave a sustainable future for our next generations,” she said at the meeting convened by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary General António Guterres. Hasina reiterated what should be the most compelling point in getting rich nations to cough up their share in tackling the climate crisis, in accordance with what they have sown while causing it. Climate-vulnerable countries still contribute the least to the global Green House gas emissions. “Yet, they’re the worst victims of the impacts of climate change.”

She mentioned that the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report has provided a grim picture about their future. “If the global temperature goes above 1.5 degree Celsius, they’ll face permanent damages. The international community has a special responsibility to support these countries in their adaptation and mitigation efforts.”

Despite being a climate vulnerable country with resource constraints, Hasina said, Bangladesh has emerged as a global pioneer on adaptation and resilience. Recently, she said, Bangladesh has submitted an ambitious and updated NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution – what a country plans to do about the climate crisis) to the UN.

Besides, she mentioned, it has adopted the “Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan,” focusing on green growth, resilient infrastructure and renewable energy. “We’re on our journey from climate vulnerability to climate resilience to climate prosperity (VRP),” she announced.

Hasina also said that as the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) and V20, her key focus is on promoting the interests of the climate vulnerable countries.

“We’re also sharing the best practices and adaptation knowledge with other climate vulnerable countries through the GCA South Asia regional office in Dhaka,” she said.

The proposals put forward by the premier include strict implementation of the Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degree Celsius, realisation of annual $100 billion climate fund from the developed countries, 50% of this fund should go to adaptation and resilience, especially to climate vulnerable countries.

The other proposals are: Forging new financial mechanisms and transfer of green technology to the developing countries, addressing loss-and-damage issue, and displacement of large-scale population due to climate change and capacity building of CVF countries to tackle the double jeopardy of pandemic and disaster, particularly with the increased frequency of climate-induced disasters.

In her address to the UNGA, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged the rich and industrialised countries to cut emissions, compensate for the loss and damage, and ensure adequate financing and technology transfer for adaptation and resilience building.

At the end of the closed-door meeting however, most assessments were pretty glum. Sources told the AP that leaders made “faint signs of progress” on the financial end of fighting climate change, in what they said was a ‘feet-to-the-fire meeting.’

But they didn’t commit to more crucial cuts in emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.

Among the two convenors, Guterres told CNN that US climate czar John Kerry’s negotiation efforts “have largely failed” because of China’s reluctance to cooperate with the United States.

Prime Minister Johnson meanwhile, confessed in a statement released by his office to being “increasingly frustrated” over commitments made by many countries that were “nowhere near enough”.

“It is the biggest economies in the world that are causing the problem, while the smallest suffer the worst consequences,” he reiterated.

Covid Diaries

Addressing the UNGA for the 17th time as the leader of Bangladesh, she placed six proposals before the delegates at the hallowed General Assembly Hall of the UN headquarters in New York. She forcefully demanded appropriate global actions for universal and affordable vaccine access for all, if the world wants to truly defeat Covid-19.

Hasina also urged the world leaders to address vaccine inequality, address Covid-19’s disproportionate impacts on the countries most adversely impacted by the climate crisis, ensure education recovery, to treat migrants fairly, and to work constructively for a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis.

She also touched upon the situation unfolding in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s return to power following the withdrawal of U.S. forces that for twenty years largely propped up a puppet government. Hasina said that Afghans should decide their future course for themselves.

“For a Covid-free world, we must ensure universal and affordable access to vaccines for people across the world,” she said in her UNGA address in Bangla as previous years, following in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s footsteps.

Sheikh Hasina said that vaccine technologies must be transferred immediately across the globe to ensure vaccine equality, saying, ‘Bangladesh is ready to produce vaccines in mass scale if technical know-how is shared with us and patent waiver is granted.’

She placed several proposals to contain the global pandemic, saying only a meaningful collaboration towards a resilient and inclusive recovery could combat the pandemic though it so far brought to the fore the inadequacy of the global preparedness to tackle emergencies.

Sheikh Hasina said that the Covid-19’s impact on Bangladesh was much less than feared as the health system was equipped and strengthened from the grassroots to combat the pandemic.

She said some 40 out of Bangladesh’s over 160 million populations were covered under the assistance in the form of cash and other means since the pandemic’s outbreak.

‘Our well-timed intervention and our people’s resilience helped us achieve over five percent economic growth in 2020,’ Sheikh Hasina said.

Bangladesh’s permanent representative to the United Nations Rabab Fatima was on rotation chairing the session as one of the elected vice presidents of the forum for this year, when the turn came for the Bangladesh prime minister to be introduced and invited to deliver her address in-person.

The Climate Crisis, Rohingya repatriation stalling, Palestine and Afghanistan issues concerning the global as well as Bangladesh perspectives were featured in Sheikh Hasina’s speech.

She said Bangladesh’s calls for vaccine equality were in keeping with its longstanding priorities in such multilateral forums, ‘Our firm position against any form of injustice as against the Palestinian people, resolution of the Rohingya crisis, and promoting climate justice — (which) are a few examples of our global commitment’.

The prime minister said that ‘Hope’ being the theme of the 76th UNGA when Covid-19 was claiming lives across the globe and battering the economies and health system across the world by recurring waves of new variants.

She pointed out that the pandemic disproportionately impacted the climate vulnerable countries that need to be addressed with immediate measures and ‘otherwise, devastating impacts of climate change will be irreversible’.

‘No country, rich or poor, is immune from the destructive effects. We, therefore, call upon the rich and industrialised countries to cut emissions, compensate for the loss and damage, and ensure adequate financing and technology transfer for adaptation and resilience building,’ she said.

Sheikh Hasina, also the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Vulnerable Twenty Group of Ministers of Finance, said her government has launched the ‘Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan – Decade 2030’ outlining a transformative agenda from climate vulnerability to climate prosperity.

Outlining the Covid challenges like other parts of the globe, Sheikh Hasina said that the pandemic also severely disrupted Bangladesh’s education system while UNICEF reported that half the world’s students were affected by partial or full school closures.

‘We need a global plan to prioritise education recovery by investing in digital tools and services, access to internet, and capacity building of teachers. We also call the UN system to rally partnership and resources to make that happen,’ she said.

Sheikh Hasina, however, said that Bangladesh largely managed to be on track for its graduation from the Least Development Countries category ‘despite the unprecedented challenges by the Covid pandemic’.

But, she said, the pandemic still risked the graduation prospect and aspiration of many countries and so ‘we look forward to receiving more support from our development partners for an incentive-based graduation structure’.

As one of the co-chairs of the preparatory committee of the LDC 5 conference, the premier sought ‘concrete outcome’ of Doha conference enabling more countries to sustainably graduate out of the LDC category.

Sheikh Hasina described migrants’ workers as frontline contributors during the pandemic in health and other emergency services and urged the migrant receiving countries to treat them fairly and protect their jobs, health, and well-being.

She said that the pandemic hit hard many migrant workers throwing them out of jobs and exposing them to salary cuts, lack of access to health and other social services and forcible return.

The problem from hell

The prime minister wanted the global community’s enhanced focus and active support to find a durable solution to the Rohingya crisis despite the uncertainty created by the recent political developments in Myanmar.

She said that the Rohingya crisis was passing its fifth year now but ‘yet not a single forcibly displaced Myanmar national could be repatriated — I would like to reiterate that the crisis was created in Myanmar and its solution lies in Myanmar’.

‘Myanmar must create the conditions conducive for their return,’ Sheikh Hasina said.

But, she added, ‘International community must work constructively for a permanent solution of the crisis through safe, sustainable, and dignified return of the Rohingyas to their home in the Rakhine State.’

The prime minster particularly expected the ASEAN leadership to step up their ongoing efforts alongside the rest of the international community to support all the accountability processes.

She frankly narrated that her government recently relocated some Rohingyas to Bhashan Char, something that had been sticking point for the UN agencies. But latest developments indicate the UN is by-and-large coming around to the move.

The prime minister said ‘peace’ was a pre-eminent focus of Bangladesh foreign policy and as a proponent of the flagship resolution of the culture of peace, Bangladesh remained deeply committed to combat terrorism to maintain social peace.

She said as precautions Bangladesh continued to spearhead a ‘zero tolerance policy’ against terrorism and violent extremism as the menaces were jeopardising peace and security in many parts of the world.

Bangladesh, she said, ‘Also takes pride as the leading peacekeeping nation and our contribution to global peace. Despite the pandemic, our peacekeepers are serving in some of the most difficult circumstances across the globe with utmost dedication and professionalism.’

‘The international community must do everything possible to ensure their (peacekeepers) safety and security,’ she said.

Sheikh Hasina said that Bangladesh’s constitution obligates the country to be steadfast supporter of complete disarmament and ‘we firmly believe the ultimate guarantee of international peace and security lies in the total elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction’.

‘It was from that conviction we ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force earlier this year,’ she said.

Mujib would be proud

The prime minister said that Bangladesh’s founder Shiekh Mujibur Rahman called for building a world free of economic inequalities, social injustice, aggression, and threats of nuclear war and told the session that the 76th UNGA was coinciding with his birth centenary and the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence.

She added, ‘These are as relevant today as they were forty-six years ago, as such, we continue to lend our voice and leadership to all those issues that aim at building an inclusive and equal society.’

The prime minister said that her government had been working hard to fulfil the unfinished dream of Sheikh Mujib.

‘We are now among the five fastest growing economies in the world, ranking 41st in terms of GDP. Over the past decade, we have reduced the poverty rate from 31.5 per cent to 20.5 per cent,’ she said. Bangladesh’s per capita income jumped to more than threefold in just one decade to USD 2,227 while its foreign currency reserve has reached all time high to USD 48 billion.

Bangladesh made impressive progress in socio-economic sphere and women empowerment during last decade adding that the infant mortality rate has been reduced to 23.67 per 1,000, maternal mortality rate to 173 per 100 thousand live births; and the average longevity of people rose to 73 years.

She pointed out that the World Economic Forum ranked Bangladesh in 7th position regarding women’s political empowerment of women Bangladesh, much ahead of its regional neighbours since 2014. The prime minster said that the Digital Bangladesh initiative stimulated transformative impacts on socio-economic development, education, disaster risk reduction, women’s empowerment, and so on.

  • 76th
  • Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina
  • Rohingya Crisis
  • United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)
  • Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
  • Climate Change

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