Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her stay in New York has not only actively participated in several UNGA activities but also drawn particular attention of the world on the need to resolve the on-going crisis that has been created through Bangladesh having to host more than a million Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine State of Myanmar. She underlined the need for their safe, sustainable and dignified return in a peaceful manner but also focused on a constructive engagement with regard to various facets related to illegal migration. In addition, as expected, she stressed on the need for women empowerment to reduce poverty and on the significance of overcoming climate change challenges. She also informed other countries about the great advances made by Bangladesh in the field of digitalization. In this context she urged all Members to work actively and if possible together, in protecting cyber space for the benefit of institutions and people using that sphere.
As expected the Rohingya issue drew the attention of all the delegations present. This was partially generated through the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ active interest with regard to this subject and also his call in August for Myanmar to be held accountable for “one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises” following the publication of a UN fact-finding report issued after investigation into atrocities committed against the Rohingyas. The report recommended that the country’s military leadership be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Rakhine State that led to around 700,000 Rohingyas being forced to flee their homes. Such an assertion also led US Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley to call for strong and immediate action against the Myanmar leadership. Canadian lawmakers on 20 September meeting in their House of Commons have also declared that the fact finding report has led them to consider that genocide has been carried out against the Rohingya Muslims.
World leaders meeting at the General Assembly in the first few days of this Session of the UNGA has already been sending strong messages and urging that measures need to be undertaken to pave the way for justice for the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities under attack in northern Myanmar. Sherine Tadros, Head of the UN Office for Amnesty International reiterated this in clear terms. In this context it was also stressed that “States must see through Myanmar’s repeated lies and deception, and establish an independent mechanism to gather and preserve evidence of crimes under international law before it is too late.” It may be added here that the International Criminal Court has already said that it has jurisdiction to bring an indictment against military leaders but the Myanmar government has denied this and has rejected all claims of atrocities.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in this context also addressed a meeting titled “High-level Event on the Global Compact on Refugees: A Model for Greater Solidarity and Cooperation” on 24 September at the UN headquarters in New York and touched on several important aspects. She pointed out that the forced movement of over 1.1 million traumatised Rohingyas induced her and the responsible government of Bangladesh to “open our border and provide shelter to the forcibly displaced Rohingyas. By doing so, we’ve not only saved lives, but also stabilized the entire region by containing the crisis within our border.” She added that “pending their return, we are trying to address their basic needs.”
It was also noted that Bangladesh which is struggling with the vast number of refugees will be hoping that this UNGA session will persuade Member States and other Agencies to generate the necessary donation of US Dollar 950 million to help United Nations Agencies to meet the diverse requirements related to the looking after of the Rohingya refugees. This has regrettably, 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.
Hasina also pointed out that the “Global Compact on Refugees” has been adopted at a time when the world is faced with swelling refugee crisis. Innocent people from various conflict-torn countries were leaving their homes for safety and security while many countries like Bangladesh were giving them shelter, protection and hope. She also mentioned that most of these refugee-hosting countries were developing countries having own set of challenges. In the meeting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also placed her three-point recommendation on this issue. Firstly, “Myanmar must abolish discriminatory laws, policies and practices against the Rohingyas and address the root causes of their “forced displacement in a genuine and timely manner”. Secondly, Myanmar “must create a conducive environment by building trust and guaranteeing protection, rights and pathway to citizenship for all Rohingyas, and if needed, create a “safe zone” inside Myanmar to protect all civilians”. Thirdly, “the people concerned in Myanmar must be held accountable and exposed to justice to prevent atrocity crimes against Rohingyas in light of the Fact-Finding Mission of the UN Human Rights Council recommendations”. This was also reflected during her statement delivered at the UN General Assembly and her meetings on the sidelines with important international political figures from the USA, Britain, Canada and the European Union.
In a separate comment in an interview, Sheikh Hasina, while thanking the international community for their active interest on this issue also urged them to take all possible steps to apply concerted pressure on Myanmar to fulfill their obligations in repatriating their citizens because the patience of Bangladesh was wearing out.
The Chinese Permanent Representative Wu Haitao has however urged a softer approach in resolving the problem based on “constructive assistance”.
On another front Sheikh Hasina took the opportunity of her visit to participate in a meeting with leaders of international financial institutions and representatives from the American industry and trading sector to highlight the profitable aspects pertaining to investment in Bangladesh as that country moves up the economic development ladder. This inter-active exchange of views was assisted through the presence of nearly 200 leaders from the Bangladesh business sector.
Sheikh Hasina in recognition of her exemplary role and leadership in the handling of the Rohingya issue was also awarded two international awards during her visit to New York- one from the Inter Press Service News Agency and the other from the non-profit Global Hope Coalition. This was a great honour for Bangladesh.
The coming weeks are expected to also witness the UNGA session focusing on other important areas- Palestine, Iran and North Korea.
The UN General Assembly has also been watching carefully how the issue of Iran is discussed and sorted out at the UNGA, now that the US has walked out of the nuclear deal with that country in May this year. There has been combative rhetoric against Iran from the USA. This has angered certain European allies, who appear to be determined to salvage the historic agreement. Iranian President Rouhani has responded to US charges strongly. Consistent with expectations of the hardliners, he has been firm and also tried at the same time to meet the expectations of the reformists and pragmatists in Iran who have urgied him to present a message of peace and diplomacy. Strategists are however pointing out that Rouhani will also have to tackle the heat that is being generated by Israel’s Netanyahu who has been warning the EU States that Iran’s expanding influence risked “an Iranian curtain descending across the Middle East”.
The next issue that is likely to draw attention and discussion in the coming days in the UNGA will be Palestine and the future of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This institution’s future has been thrown into doubt after the United States announced in August that it would withdraw from funding this important agency- that provides support for five million Palestinian refugees and their family members. The US has historically been its leading donor. However, since the election of Donald Trump as President, its funding has dropped precipitously. The price is already being felt by Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied territories as UNRWA has laid off 158 teachers and 194 contract workers. The operation of many schools, hospitals and other facilities has also been jeopardized. The Palestinian National Council has called on governments across the world to use this General Assembly Session to agree on ways and means to help them. One can only hope that this critical aspect will receive due humanitarian attention from the world community. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her deliberations during her presence in the UNGA has reiterated Bangladesh’s firm commitment and support towards the resolving of emerging and evolving problems with regard to Palestine.
Another significant issue that will receive particular attention in the coming days on the sidelinewill be the question of denuclearization of North Korea. This year has seen major developments on the Korean Peninsula- including a historic peace agreement between North and South Korea in Panmunjom in April and a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June. Both USA and the DPRK pledged to work towards Pyongyang’s “complete denuclearization”. However, the Joint Agreement being relatively light on detail has not produced expected results till now.
Since then the ball has however started moving forward again thanks to exchange of tweets between Trump and Kim. This evolving process has also been taken forward with South Korean President Moon Jae-in meeting Kim in the third week of September in Pyongyang, where both vowed to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. It is now being anticipated that that President Moon will meet with President Trump in New York and try to persuade him to respond positively to the steps outlined in Pyongyang and also to undertake the ‘corresponding steps that were ambiguously referred to in Pyongyang as a condition for North Korea to permanently close the Yongbyon nuclear site. If that happens, that will be a plus point.
( Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at <muham email@example.com>)