'Bangladesh is held in high esteem'
Masud Bin Momen (MBM) is currently serving as the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations in New York. He has had an illustrious career in Foreign Service, holding important assignments in Dhaka, Pakistan, the SAARC secretariat in Nepal and in Delhi as a deputy high commissioner. He has also held ambassadorial assignments in Rome, Italy, and Tokyo, Japan.
In this exclusive interview with Star Weekend (SW), he shares his thoughts on various aspects of Bangladesh's foreign policy, the challenges and opportunities the country faces and his insights on the recently concluded 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly.
SW: What inspired you to join Foreign Service?
MBM: I studied Economics at Dhaka University, and after completing my studies, I joined Foreign Service in the 7th batch of BCS. I then obtained a Master's in International Relations through a scholarship of Asia foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University in USA. While I could have tried to build an academic career, I thought I could contribute more to Bangladesh's interests by joining the Foreign Service, while maintaining a modest living.
SW: UN's peacekeeping missions have played critical roles in many countries torn by conflict, and Bangladesh has been one of the top troop contributors to the UN for many years. What are some of the challenges our troops are facing, and how are those being mitigated?
MBM: A key challenge Bangladeshi troops face is the language barrier–most of the peacekeeping missions are in francophone Africa; so, a lot of French speaking peacekeepers are needed there. Moreover, while we are the second largest contributor of troops to the UN right now, there is a shortage of female peacekeepers. So, we need more women in the peacekeeping forces. Furthermore, increased use of technology is also a challenge.
Overall, Bangladesh peacekeepers are very popular due to their roles in helping the local populations, winning their hearts and minds by building schools, houses, hospitals etc. However, in recent times we have seen, globally, sexual exploitation and abuse cases involving peacekeepers of some countries are overshadowing achievements of overall peacekeeping operations. We in Bangladesh have adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards such cases, and trying to act as a role model by increasing accountability and awareness through appropriate training.
Rules of engagement with armed groups is also an issue. There are often thugs or extremists trying to destabilise the situation in some war-ravaged countries. For instance, in Mali, there are localised warlords who do not have any ideological issues but operate for profits. So, UN peacekeepers cannot engage in combat with them. There are no rules of engagement in these cases. We are working on these emerging challenges collectively with other countries and trying to come up with effective solutions.
SW: Bangladesh's image to the international community took a hit due to the Holey Bakery incident. What has been done in its aftermath to restore Bangladesh's image as a safe place for expatriates to work and conduct business in?
MBM: The Holey Artisan incident was a wakeup call for us. It has changed our perception on home-grown terrorism or religious extremism. There is a Code of Conduct against terrorism, UN has a Counter Terrorism committee and we have been also pursuing a 'zero tolerance' policy against terrorism. However, terrorism can be addressed more effectively when the entire society is involved rather than just the law enforcement agencies. So, we are adopting a 'whole of society' approach, sensitising and involving religious leaders, families particularly mothers, school teachers and peers and creating greater awareness through civil society and media engagement. We create opportunities for our religious leaders in different forums here so that they can go back and preach those messages and propagate the idea of tolerance and moderation. For instance, Imam of Sholakiya who has a large following in Bangladesh recently came to USA to meet the UN Alliance of Civilization officials and also met the officials of counter terrorism related department. He also attended events to discuss ways and means to deal with challenges related to violent extremism.
SW: How is Bangladesh making the case for increased climate action to the international community and what steps is it taking domestically to adapt?
MBM: Climate change is a key focus area for Bangladesh. Like many other countries the negative impact of natural disasters in Bangladesh are being exacerbated due to climate change. Last year our planet experienced the highest temperature ever recorded.
We were one of the founding members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), and the honourable PM has confirmed her participation in the first virtual climate summit being organised by CVF this year. This Summit will discuss how countries such as Bangladesh and small island developing states for which climate change is an existential threat, will adapt and survive, and how to involve private sector actors in climate action. We are highlighting the work we are doing in our country to adapt to climate change to the international community through such platforms and showing development partners that current levels of assistance are not enough given the magnitude of the problem. We are also fostering South-South cooperation, and innovative programs such as Access to Information or A2i which are revolutionising public service delivery. But South-South cooperation is not a substitute for North-South cooperation; we need both.
Domestically, we are changing our energy mix and increasing the share of renewables such as solar power. But if we want to continue our current GDP level, given our massive energy dependence, we need clean coal energy as well. There is a huge difference in emissions level between first generation coal plants and ultra-critical coal plants such as the one we are building with the help of the Japanese in Matarbari. We have also been venturing in nuclear power generation which is a source of clean energy.
SW: What is being done by the UN and Bangladesh to attain a viable solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis?
MBM: A Security Council team went to Bangladesh earlier this year to visit the Rohingya camps; the UN Secretary General also paid a visit taking along the President of World Bank; as did the head of the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (UN OCHA). A resolution was passed in the General Assembly last year in this regard and a special envoy was appointed.
We are working with Myanmar's neighbouring countries to see how it can be solved with the help of these regional countries. We are adopting a two-track approach. Bilaterally, we are working for repatriation in safety, dignity and security so that the Rohingyas can pursue sustainable livelihood when they return. A conducive environment needs to be created for their return, and the return has to be voluntary. We are hoping that very soon repatriation would start. We have good faith in the bilateral process with Myanmar, but sometimes we don't see congruence between their announcements and actions. The second track we are pursuing is through multilateral diplomacy, and the international community's custodianship is needed to oversee the results of our bilateral arrangements to solve the problem. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution earlier this year pushing the issue of accountability which is important as it is a part of the confidence building measure for the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas may not be willing to return to the same people who have been responsible for perpetrating atrocity against them. So, we are working to make sure that the issue remains high on the agenda of the international community.
SW: Bangladesh is set to graduate from Least Developed Country status. While this is a testament to the country's continued development strides, it also poses a host of challenges. Are we ready for them?
MBM: The transition has been good so far. In the past, some skeptics said without GSP facilities our garments sector won't survive. But we have proved them wrong. There is no reason to shy away from competition. We also have strong pharmaceuticals and IT industries. However, the concessions we are enjoying as LDC have to be phased out in a sustainable way and prudent economic policies need to be adopted. For example, Jute needs to be popularised as a natural fiber, but if plastic is subsidised for instance, that can jeopardise prospects of jute and jute based products.
SW: What do you see as a key challenge the United Nations member states face today?
MBM: Today, we see some wind of anti-multilateralism. However, it is critical that countries continue to work multilaterally to face various global challenges. Previously, we were the chair of LDC group and now, an important member of the group of 77, and from this platform, we will play a critical role in pursuing this issue. Our role as a country has always been a moderating one, so we are highlighting the benefits of multilateralism raising awareness about the costs of pursuing issues in an isolated manner. A cost benefit analysis would show that if you cooperate everybody will win, but if we pursue a zero sum game approach everyone will suffer at the end. To promote rule based international trading system, there is also a need to strengthen the World Trade Organization. There is a tendency among different regional blocks to form trade grouping. While we want to be part of these we will also pursue free trade as much as possible.
A large focus of the UN is attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the global goals - a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030. How is Bangladesh poised with regards to achieving these goals?
As a nation, our basic needs such as food, shelter, healthcare etc. have been addressed to a large extent, and we were successful in attaining the Millennium Development Goals. So, now we are focusing on attaining the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing issues such as inclusive social development. The SDGs have been aligned with our 7th five-year plan, and in order to localise the SDGs, task forces have been set up in every ministry. Bangladesh was one of the first countries that participated in the Voluntary National Review under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of UN, which is entrusted with the role of SDG monitoring. Globally 30 trillion dollars are needed to finance the SDGs. Therefore, international cooperation and financing remains critical for successful SDG implementation. We have, however, started our work in full earnest with our own resources.
SW: Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the nature of work, making many existing jobs obsolete with machines replacing humans. How is the UN preparing to approach this disruption to the labor market?
MBM: The advent of Artificial Intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, driver-less cars etc. is creating a lot of concern about their possible adverse impacts. Traditional skill based jobs as well as jobs of doctors, architects, programmers are being threatened. Even jobs of troops in UN missions are being affected due to technological advancements, usage of drones, night vision capability etc. We need to overhaul our education system to meet the skill sets needed in this era of the fourth industrial revolution. We also need to evaluate how the traditional jobs would be replaced by robots and what would be the effects on income and inequality.
Recently, a Group of Ambassadors including me met the UN Secretary General in this regard and after we expressed our concerns, he appointed a high-level panel on digital cooperation which will present a report on this issue soon. There is no international regulatory framework to contain the disruptive impacts of 4IR. Some developed countries and powerful private sector firms are doing things on their own. Companies such as Google or Microsoft would not want their actions to be controlled. There should be solid international cooperation with regard to addressing the capacity gaps of some developing countries and LDCs.
SW: What was the key policy focus area for Bangladesh at the recently concluded UN General Assembly?
MBM: The Rohingya refugee issue was the major area of focus for Bangladesh, and we have been very active in the General Assembly and the UN Security Council to highlight the Rohingya issue and keep it as a priority. The honorable PM met the UN Secretary General, the US Secretary of States as well as UN agency heads such as those of UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM, ICRC in bilateral meetings during the UNGA in this regard. She also stressed the Rohingya issue during her speech at the UNGA and also placed a three-point proposal on this to the UN at a high-level event on the Global Compact on Refugees, organised by UNHCR during the UNGA.
Migration and development was a highlight at this year's UN General Assembly. The very concept of the Global Compact of Migration–an agreement of UN member states covering all dimensions of international migration–was coined by Bangladesh. We have a huge migrant community, so we wanted a compact which would be legally binding; but opposition from a large number of countries prevented such an outcome.
SW: How do you see Bangladesh's role evolving in international platforms such as the UN?
MBM: Bangladesh is increasingly playing an active role on various emerging global issues. For instance, we did a side event on cyber security during this UNGA, with a focus on financial sector security concerns. The Bangladesh Bank heist highlighted the need for enhanced cyber security and built-in checks and balances. The panel also covered issues such as cyber warfare, accidental triggering of certain devices, hacking which could lead to dismantling of strategic installations. The UN is also working on these issues, and talks on required regulations are taking place as well, with member states. Bangladesh is very much at par with other countries on these discussions, and we are no longer a country that only talks about poverty alleviation or foreign assistance.
Bangladesh today has rightly recognised that it is a role model for many countries. We are held in high esteem within the member countries and UN entities, so, we are working at this global forum with dignity. This has been possible due to our strong political and visionary leadership and development strides, and we aim to continue with this trajectory.