The 18th Speech of the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the largest stage of global diplomacy, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), is a testimony to global justice and peace. Forty-six years ago, Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addressed the UNGA in his mother tongue, Bengali and called this global body as the 'Parliament of Entire Humankind'. As a daughter of Bangabandhu, Sheikh Hasina has been gifted with the unique opportunity to learn the lessons of humanity and justice from her parents, her family. The speech of the Bangladesh Prime Minister has drawn global attention. In her speech, Sheikh Hasina has not only raised the challenges that the present world has been confronting, but has also provided a guideline to the international community to establish a peaceful and prosperous world. Sheikh Hasina spoke in the UNGA (on September 24, 2021) not just as a leader of 170 million Bengalis, but a leader of 7.0 billion people in the world.
Why is the Prime Minister's speech significant for Bangladesh as well as the entire global humanity? First of all, Bangladesh Prime Minister delivered her speech in the UNGA as the most experienced leader for her longest service to the nation as a democratically elected head of the government. She has witnessed two different trajectories of world history in her life as prime minister - 1996-2001 and 2009-present. Both the trajectories are substantially different in terms of issues and challenges. Second, the Prime Minister has specifically focused regional and global situations as potential threats to peace and justice at every level - national to global. It is a rare display of vision and sagacity in today's world where major powers are pursuing the so-called 'country first' policy. This has become so deliberate that allies are abandoning allies, friends are abandoning friends in the present day geopolitical rivalries. Third, most of the speakers in the 76th UNGA debate singularly highlighted their own bilateral issues and alliance interests instead of regional and global threats from a truly multilateral perspective. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is visibly the exception among the important leaders who spoke in the UNGA debate.
In this context, major thrusts of her speech may be identified to understand how it has contributed to a new roadmap for the global humanity towards establishing global peace and justice. The Bangladesh Prime Minister floated 6-point proposal to the UNGA covering collective interests of global citizens of developed and developing countries.
SHOWCASING BANGLADESH AS THE TOP DIPLOMAT: The Prime Minister has perfectly demonstrated the achievements of Bangladesh amid challenges of the Covid-19 global pandemic. She has not only focused on the concrete achievements but also shared a strategic vision of Bangladesh as a peace-loving nation in the world. She said, "Our vision is to transform Bangladesh into a knowledge-based developed country by 2041; and a prosperous and resilient Delta by 2100." She referred to the architect of Bangladesh foreign policy, the Father of the Nation, as a strong advocate of multilateralism and called the United Nations 'as the centre of people's future hopes and aspirations.' She quoted from Bangabandhu's speech to the UNGA on September 25, 1974: "Our goal is self-reliance; our chosen path is the united and collective efforts of our people. International cooperation and the sharing of the resources and technology could, no doubt, make our task less onerous and reduce the cost in human suffering".
The Prime Minister shared with the global community that Bangladesh is now among the five fastest growing economies in the world, ranking 41st in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Under her leadership, Bangladesh has reduced poverty rate from 31.5 per cent to 20.5 per cent. The per capita income has jumped more than threefold in just one decade to US$ 2,227. It was just $730 in 2009. The foreign currency reserve of the country has jumped from $1 billion in 2009 to all time high $ 48 billion in 2021.
ADDRESSING THE COVID-19 VACCINE INEQUALITY: The first and foremost point that the Prime Minister raised in the global body is to address the Covid-19 vaccine inequality. Referring to the data of World Bank, she mentioned that 84 per cent of vaccines doses have so far gone to people in high and upper middle-income countries, while the low-income countries received less than 1.0 per cent. The Prime Minister has not hesitated to show the true picture of vaccine divide in the world. Hence, she asserted, "We must ensure universal and affordable access to vaccines for people across the world." Sheikh Hasina reminded the world that she had called for treating Covid-19 vaccines as a "global public good" that has remained largely unheeded. She also demanded immediate transfer of vaccine technologies that could be a means to ensure vaccine equity. Bangladesh is ready to produce vaccines in mass scale if technical know-how is shared with the country and patent waiver is granted.
COVID-19 RELATED IMPACTS AND MEASURES: The Prime Minister rightly observed that there have been differences in the consequences of the Covid-19 across nations, communities and income groups. This disproportionate implication is a huge challenge for the world, particularly the developing countries. It is because of the uneven and lop-sided implications in the world that the Prime Minister emphasised a number of measures to undertake without any delay. First, it is critical for 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. Second, there is a need for education recovery plan. She said, "We need a global plan to prioritse education recovery by investing in digital tools and services, access to the Internet, and capacity building of teachers. We also call upon the UN system to rally partnership and resources to make that happen." Third, Sheikh Hasina emphasised more support from the developed world "to motivate and incentivise sustainable graduation, we look forward to receiving more support from our development partners for an incentive-based graduation structure." Fourth, the Prime Minster called for better treatment of the health workers as they have been the frontline contributors during the pandemic as essential workers in the health and other emergency services while paradoxically they suffered most from loss of jobs, salary cuts, lack of access to health and other social services, and forcible return.
THE ROHINGYA CRISIS: While speaking at the 76th UNGA Sheikh Hasina reiterated her disappointment at the silence of the international community and non-cooperation of the Myanmar regime. She lamented that although the Rohingya crisis is in its fifth year now, not a single forcibly displaced Myanmar national could be repatriated to Myanmar. She demanded that Myanmar must create the conditions conducive for their return. She stressed the need on the part of the International community to work constructively for a permanent solution of the crisis through safe, sustainable, and dignified return of the Rohingyas to their homes in Rakhine State.
She has added a new dimension to the Rohingya crisis which is the uncertainty emanating from new political developments in Myanmar-- visibly referring to the February military coup in the country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has urged the global community to turn their "words and rhetoric" over the Rohingya crisis into actions to reach a desired solution to the protracted problem. In a high level event during her visit, Sheikh Hasina put forward five proposals to solve the crisis. The proposals are: Ensuring sustainable repatriation, finding a solution to the current crisis in Myanmar, ASEAN playing a role, taking tangible actions and projects by the UN in Myanmar to create an environment conducive to repatriation, and ensuring accountability for the persecution committed against the Rohingyas. Thus the Prime Minister has once again prominently featured the sufferings of the persecuted Rohingya people and the need for resolving the crisis in the global agenda.
COLLECTIVE ENGAGEMENT: The Bangladesh Prime Minister emphasised a number of critical issues for the global humanity that requires collective engagement of the UN members. First of all, the PM emphasised the need for disarmament in the context of threat from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Second, she reiterated the importance of combating terrorism and violent extremism through the culture of peace and the policy of 'zero tolerance'. Third, the PM highlighted the new challenges that the international peacekeepers are facing today due to the Covid-19 global pandemic.
No global leaders have presented this kind of perspective of global peace in any global forum. She demanded that the international community must do everything possible to ensure their safety and security. Fourth, the Prime Minister provided a dominant perspective on the Afghanistan crisis as she has appropriately linked the issue with South Asian peace and prosperity. She emphasised, "We envision a peaceful, stable, and prosperous South Asia. We firmly believe that it is upon the people of Afghanistan to rebuild their country and decide the course of the future themselves. Bangladesh stands ready to continue to work with the people of Afghanistan and the international community for its socio-economic development." Last, but not the least, Sheikh Hasina has fortified the role of the UN in the era of pessimism and ultra-nationalism terming the global body as a bastion of hope. In her words, "We must demonstrate our ability to work and act together on global common issues and create space for new partnerships and solutions. And that must start right here at the UN; with the member states; across regions; rising above narrow political interests. At this critical juncture, the United Nations stands as our best hope."
It must be noted that the vision and leadership of the Bangladesh Prime Minister as reflected to in her speech at the 76th Session of the UNGA reminds the world of the days of Bangabandhu who always took pride in speaking for the oppressed and exploited people in the world. His daughter and the global leader of the contemporary era won the hearts and minds of millions and millions of marginalised people of North and the Global South through her unswerving and unyielding voices for global peace, justice and equity.
Dr Delwar Hossain is Professor, Dept. of International Relations, University Of Dhaka.