How the UN efforts began in a war-ravaged country
Today marks the 47th anniversary of Bangladesh becoming a member of the United Nations, so it's an opportune moment to take a look at the UN operations in the early days of independent Bangladesh.
The UN made its mark in the country on July 17, 1971, with the UN Relief Operations in East Pakistan (UNEPRO). Thomas Oliver and Brian Urquhart, in their 1978 book "The United Nations in Bangladesh," argued: "UNEPRO had been ill-conceived from the beginning, and the war had saved the UN from a major scandal." UNEPRO later turned into the UN Relief Operations Dhaka (UNROD) on December 21, 1971, and then to the UN Relief Operations Bangladesh (UNROB) on April 1, 1973. UNROB was terminated on December 31, 1973. According to the UN, UNROD/B was the most successful and largest operation of its kind ever mounted by the UN during that period.
After Pakistan's crackdown on innocent civilians on March 25, 1971, neither the UN secretary-general nor any other country used Article 35 of the UN Charter to bring the situation to the attention of the Security Council. But earlier in 1960, the UN secretary-general had taken the initiative to bring the situation in the Congo to the attention of the Security Council. Thus, the Cold War rivalry played its part in different contexts. After all, the Congo was a classic case of the Cold War rivalry mainly for its vast natural resources. On the other hand, East Pakistan was a part of Pakistan, and the world was blind to the views of Pakistani leadership. Arguably, the UN's dilemma to get involved in East Pakistan had helped freedom fighters pave the way to develop their capacity to evict the occupation forces.
Oliver and Urquhart argued that the UN officials, while coordinating humanitarian assistance in Dhaka in June 1971, felt that some Bangalee civil servants were still influenced by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's call for non-cooperation. Moreover, the distribution of relief goods was affected by the influence of local peace committees. UNEPRO faced difficulties due to the delays in recruitment, the ongoing war, and increased guerrilla activities. The UN clarified that there was no question of a peacekeeping element in UN humanitarian assistance as requested by Pakistan.
The "Mujib" factor remained at the forefront for the UN for a peaceful solution of the conflict. Thus, on August 3, 1971, then UN Secretary-General U Thant sent a personal message to then Pakistan President Yahya Khan, requesting him not to undertake any trial of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as it would further escalate the tension among the people. He also wrote to the secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressing the same opinion. Due to the stalemate, the UN decided to regroup personnel, evacuated non-essential personnel and diverted ships carrying relief goods to Singapore from November 22, 1971. Later, the Mujibnagar government sent the first official delegate to the UN on December 4, 1971.
The Security Council arranged its meeting on the situation in East Pakistan on December 4, 1971. According to UN documents, there were three draft resolutions—all were vetoed. Later on December 12, the Security Council met again, and continued debate until December 17. At that time, the Indian foreign minister read a statement stating that the Pakistan forces had surrendered, and the ceasefire had come into effect. Thereafter, on December 21, U Thant informed the matters to the General Assembly, and a resolution was adopted, with no veto, mentioning a durable ceasefire, cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of armed forces, return of refugees, and international assistance for humanitarian support.
After independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his government succeeded in turning the Mujibnagar government into a central government—a rare accomplishment in world history. In many cases, newly independent states bore colonial legacy and crumbled, and fell prey to the Cold War rivalry between the 1950s and 1970s. Though Bangladesh was a newly independent state, the government created favourable conditions for the UN's relief operations. The efforts of the UN were only on relief operations—a unique phenomenon as the UN was fully involved directly in state building in the Congo in the 1960s upon its independence. In more recent times, the UN has engaged heavily in South Sudan to develop its state capacity before and after its independence in 2011.
On December 20, 1971, UNEPRO was renamed UNROD, the UN Relief Operations Dhaka. The first chief of mission of UNROD was Toni Hagen, a Swiss geologist, who had experience in relief work. Bangabandhu returned to Dhaka on January 10, 1972 and met Hagen on January 15. He initiated a series of working-level meetings between the government departments and senior UNROD officials on food supply, distribution system, shelter requirements and emergency salvage operations. Bangabandhu's leadership impressed Hagen, who developed an excellent relationship with him. With Sheikh Mujib's leadership, UNROD became the pivot of relief operations and the government's main channel to communicate with UN member states. In the absence of recognition and being a non-UN member, Bangabandhu's decision to use UNROD as a vehicle was prudent.
In March 1972, a letter from the secretary-general was handed over by UNROD to Sheikh Mujib, who pointed out that he was the prime minister of Bangladesh, not Dhaka. Hagen later said: "Despite the damage and the shortages, there was activity everywhere." Sheikh Mujib endorsed sending a high-level assessment mission under the UN leadership to consider long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction work. With his able guidance, from February 1972, Bangladesh Planning Commission started functioning and could submit appropriate needs of assistance to the UN.
Bangabandhu undertook a lot of innovative steps in state building. He also instructed that assistance from voluntary agencies be channelled through the Bangladesh Red Cross and be integrated with the government's programme—otherwise, they must leave. He informed UNROD that the salvage operation was the priority of the government, and he sought UN assistance. Sensing a credibility gap in UN technical assistance as well as a delay in the salvage operation in Chattogram and Mongla port by UNROD, Bangabandhu went to the USSR in the first week of March in 1972, and accepted the Soviet offer to undertake salvage operations, which was the key to begin economic lifeline of the country. In August 1972, the Soviet decided not to undertake salvage operations of Mongla port, as it envisaged clearing Chattogram port by 1973. The government then requested UNROD for assistance, and the UN then negotiated with a consortium on October 24, 1972 to complete the essential clearance work by May 15, 1973.
From May 1973, ports were cleared for international shipping. Sheikh Mujib, upon discussion with UNROD officials, formally requested the secretary-general to continue relief assistance mainly in food grain and transport sectors to commensurate with the outcome of Aman harvest after March 31, 1973, the date of termination of the UNROD programme. UNROD operated for 15 months and assisted the new country to stand on its feet. On April 1, 1973, UNROD turned into the UN Relief Operations Bangladesh (UNROB).
In late March in 1973, the secretary-general received a request from Bangabandhu for UN assistance in arranging transportation to repatriate a limited number of Bangalees from Pakistan. Thus, the UN helped to repatriate Bangalees, who were in Pakistan, to Bangladesh in 1973. By July, the first batch of 425 Bangalees was airlifted to Dhaka. Sheikh Mujib also sought UN assistance to rehabilitate repatriated citizens—estimated to be 150,000 to 200,000.
In summary, the UN's slow approach and the non-committal attitude of the Great Powers prolonged the war. In 1971, UN headquarters lacked efficient staffing and focused on humanitarian assistance, rather than stopping the civil war. UN's approach was also affected when then Secretary-General U Thant was seriously ill and admitted to the hospital. Pakistani leaders lacked strategic thinking and arguably failed to understand the parallel undertaking of diplomatic as well as military lines of operation by India.
UNROD/B was a testing ground for the UN system to work under an umbrella, where the UN secretary-general exercised one voice. For the UN, the experience of Bangladesh provided a model for future operations by UN agencies, voluntary agencies, and donors in harmony. Resources received from voluntary agencies and bilateral assistance were best utilised by the government. According to UN documents, Bangabandhu's leadership was crucial. Bangabandhu made sure that the UNROD/B Headquarters and the government relief coordinator's office were in close proximity to ensure better coordination. The operation was remarkably free of bureaucratic hassles with respect to the functioning of the Coordination Division and the then ministry of relief and rehabilitation. Thus, an excellent, cordial, and supportive relationship between UNROD/B staff and Bangladesh government officials was created. Above all, Bangabandhu's art of leadership in handling the UN system was exemplary, and he utilised the potentials of the UN to the fullest without Bangladesh being a member of the UN.
Brig Gen Saleem Ahmad Khan, PhD is on leave pending retirement (LPR). Information for this article has been obtained from UN documents, UN websites, the book "The United Nations in Bangladesh," the author's book "Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: A Study of the World Leaders and the UN operations in Bangladesh [1971-73]."