Bangladesh-UN partnership

We have earned a place of honour

Dr Nurul Momen

From time immemorial one blessing that has been constantly eluding the grasp of man is peace. But today, in the nuclear age, it is such an imperative necessity that without it the very human civilisation may be at stake. The United Nations, by far the world's largest international organisation, provides an avenue for the purpose. To be sure, the World Body has other aims. But all these are intended to strengthen the main cause.

From the point of view of maintenance of peace and security, the position of all countries are not the same. For small states, protection of their security and sovereignty has always been difficult. Unlike the case of the major powers, foreign policy options are very restricted for them. In a turbulent world marked by arms race, terrorism and evil designs, the task is even more baffling for a least developed country like Bangladesh. Moreover, in the absence of a relatively peaceful and tension-free atmosphere at the international, regional and domestic levels, the country's much-needed socio-economic development to meet the rising aspirations of its large and growing population is bound to be impeded.

Since Bangladesh ardently needs peace and security, and since these are precisely the main aim of the United Nations, close understanding and co-operation between them seem to be a foregone conclusion. As a matter of fact, although Bangladesh became a full-member of the United Nations in September 1974, Bangladesh-UN co-operation started on humanitarian grounds, immediately after the attainment of its statehood.

Over the years, Bangladesh's relations with the World Body grew further and developed into a partnership in different areas because of several other reasons. First, its constitution, which came into force in 1972, commits to base its international relations on the principle of peaceful settlement of international disputes and respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the Charter of the United Nations and to strive for general and complete disarmament. (Article 25)

Secondly, the UN has remained a major pillar of Bangladesh's foreign policy ever since it joined the World Body and this has not changed despite many changes in its government.

Thirdly, with the help of its widespread linkages as well as membership of several international groupings, Bangladesh has long been directing its efforts towards projecting a new international identity through the UN and other international and multilateral forums. The aim is to offset the constraints on its foreign policy arising from its geographical position and economic realities.

Fourthly, Bangladesh has ratified or acceded to most of the UN instruments such as conventions and treaties and actively participated in all major UN conferences. Last but not the least, Bangladesh's performances in major UN forums like the General Assembly and the Security Council have helped to enhance its credibility and image in UN circle. As a consequence, it could secure important positions such as the President of the General Assembly, Chairman of various Commissions and Committees, and Executive Member of a number of UN bodies and specialised agencies.

In the General Assembly, Bangladesh has played an important role on a number of issues during the last three decades. Bangladesh's efforts have been primarily focused on Arab-Israeli conflict, decolonisation and economic problems. By 1980 it emerged as the leader of the least developed countries. However, true to its constitutional obligation, it has also showed considerable interest in multilateral disarmament and arms limitation, which is central to UN efforts to maintain international peace and security. In late 1978 Bangladesh served as a member of the preparatory committee to the Assembly's Special Session Devoted to disarmament in which it also actively participated. Although Bangladesh has no known expertise in the field, its diplomatic position on the issue improved to some extent in August 1979 when it acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “in the interest of global peace and in its own larger national interests.” In the Assembly Bangladesh has all along been quite active in behind-the-scene negotiations on the various items concerning disarmament as it has co-sponsored a large number of draft resolutions on the issue. Further, Bangladesh has time and again advocated that energies and resources of the international community should be spent on peace and development.

In the context of developing a fruitful partnership on peace and security Bangladesh's role in the Security Council should be considered all the more significant because the UN organ is specifically charged with the responsibility of maintaining the same. No doubt the country's elections to the Council on two two-year tenures are viewed as major diplomatic triumphs but its actual performances in that forum on both the terms must also be viewed as highly impressive, more so because here the great powers have an edge over others.

Bangladesh's first term (1979-80) in the Security Council happened to be a distinct phase of the Cold War. In addition to the Arab-Israeli dispute, the Vietnamese invasion of Kamputchea, the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, Iranian hostage issue, the Iran-Iraq war and African issues such as independence of Rhodesia and arms embargo against South Africa figured prominently in the agenda. Bangladesh's joint efforts with other non-aligned member-nations to circumvent the Soviet vetoes on Kamputchea and Afghanistan failed, but its similar efforts on dismantling of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territories, despite the known US position, proved to be successful on quite a few occasions. On the hostage issue, in keeping with the recognised principle of international law, Bangladesh supported the resolution for the release of American diplomats held in Tehran. But Bangladesh disagreed on the question of application of sanctions because it believed such measures would exacerbate the existing situation. Subsequent events proved the correctness of the position of Bangladesh. In the same period Bangladesh supervised on behalf of the UN the elections in Rhodesia leading to its independence as Zimbabwe and was elected as the Chairman of the Security Council's Committee on Arms Embargo in South Africa.

During Bangladesh's second term (2000-2001), under the changed diplomatic situation too, it played a significant role in the Council. Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor dominated the agenda. For Bangladesh the task was onerous, but still it was able to break some new grounds. For instance, it was on the proposal of Bangladesh that for the first time a debate was held on the humanitarian dimension of the role of the Security Council. During the period Bangladesh also made important contributions as the Chairman of the two committees, namely the Committee Concerning Sierra Leone and the Working Committee on the Role of Sanctions.

On the specific issues, Bangladesh showed special interest in peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone and expressed concern about the working of UN transitional authority in Kosovo. In April 2000, Bangladesh led a 10-member delegation of the Council to Kosovo to comprehend the challenges faced by the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Such a leadership role by a non-permanent member is rare in the history of the Security Council.

Diplomatic efforts have provided the essential background for the Bangladesh-UN partnership, which has blossomed over the years encompassing many areas. However, the most spectacular manifestation of the partnership lies in the field peacekeeping.

Since Bangladesh is an ardent and active proponent of UN's call for preservation and promotion of international peace and security it showed no reservation in participating in UN peacekeeping missions. Bangladesh's involvement in peacekeeping operations began in 1988 when it participated in two operations - one in Iraq (UNIIMOG) and the other in Namibia (UNTAG) and in subsequent 17 years or so it was associated with as many as 30 UNPKOs in 25 countries around the globe. As of Dec 2005, about 60,000 personnel from Bangladesh armed forces participated in these endeavours, contributing thereby the second largest troop in the field of global peacekeeping. The performance of Bangladesh's contingents under varying conditions has been of a high order as it is marked by unflinching commitment, dedication and competence. UN Operations in Mozambique (UNOMOZ), UN Mission in former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR), UN Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM), UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), UN Organisation Mission in Congo (MONUC), and UN Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET) - all provide stories of glittering success for which Bangladesh can justifiably be proud of. Appointment of several senior Bangladesh military officers as the Commander of UN peacekeeping missions and Senior Military Liaison Officers, in which positions they served with distinction, may be considered as recognition of Bangladesh's growing credibility in peacekeeping. Indeed, the country's achievements in this field have been duly acknowledged and appreciated by the world community including the Secretary-General of the United Nations. While carrying out their duties as peacekeepers under intense risk and hostile situation, as many as 64 brave sons of our soil have sacrificed their lives in the interest of world peace but our national commitment to the lofty cause has remained undiminished.

UN-Bangladesh partnership in peacekeeping has been mutually rewarding. The experience and expertise gained by Bangladeshi contingents in different peacekeeping operations can now be profitably utilised elsewhere under similar circumstances. The work of the United Nations in the area of peace and security is much broader than is generally realised. In all these fields Bangladesh-UN co-operation has been noticeable.

UN's support to Bangladesh in socio-economic development is of crucial significance. Indeed, Bangladesh's success in its struggle for higher standard of living depends much upon its partnership with the UN.

The world has been passing through one of the most intricate moments in history. The emergence of a unipolar world and the tendency of the most powerful country to bypass the UN and resort to unilateral action has given rise to fear about the future of the smaller nations. But we cannot afford to lose faith in humanity, nor is there any alternative to the United Nations. As the world public opinion is growing, we have every hope that the United Nations will soon be able to overcome the present crisis and play its due role in the maintenance of international peace and security. Therefore, the World Body needs to be strengthened and so is the need for further growth of the UN-Bangladesh partnership.

The author is Professor of Human Rights, Dhaka International University.

©, 2006. All Rights Reserved