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World leaders must help Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis

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World leaders must help Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis

Robert Terpstra from the United Nations

Two weeks after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh addressed the 74th United Nations General Assembly, little headway has been made by member states on the plight of the Rohingyas.

On September 27 in New York City, on the final day of addresses by heads of state at the august forum, the Rohingya crisis remained the most important subject raised by the Bangladesh leader in her 21-minute speech.

For a couple of years, from 2015-18, the Rohingya crisis, a genocide targeting 750,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, lying south of Bangladesh, gripped the world’s attention. Unfortunately for a 24-hour news cycle with a 280-character attention span and Westerners with more skin in the game as Syrian and Libyan refugees having made their way to Europe, the Rohingyas have seemingly been soon forgotten.

With discrimination going back generations, and violence dating to as early as 2011, the Rohingyas – deemed non-citizens and Bangladesh immigrants by the Myanmar government under its 1982 Citizenship Law – were forced across the border to Bangladesh. Now 600,000 people of the ethnic minority group find themselves in the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp just outside Cox’s Bazar.

Sheikh Hasina, speaking in Bengali at 6.27pm local Eastern Daylight Time, or 4.27am +1 Bangladesh Standard Time, repeated at the United Nations (UN) her proposal to resolve the Rohingya crisis that she had first introduced at the 72nd UN General Assembly (UNGA) on September 21, 2017.

“First, Myanmar must manifest clear political will supported by concrete actions for [the] sustainable return and reintegration of Rohingyas to Myanmar,” the PM said at the UNGA in 2019. “Second, Myanmar must build trust among the Rohingyas by discarding discriminatory laws and practices and allowing go-and-see visits to the northern Rakhine by the Rohingya representatives. Third, Myanmar must guarantee security and safety to the Rohingyas by deploying civilian monitors from international communities in the Rakhine State. Fourth, the international community must ensure that the root causes of the Rohingya problem are addressed and the violations of human rights and other atrocity crimes committed against the Rohingyas are accounted for.”

Sheikh Hasina prefaced her two-year-old proposal to the UNGA hall and directed at a present, but nonplussed Myanmar delegation with a blunt statement of the effect the crisis has had on Bangladesh.

“We are bearing the burden of a crisis which is Myanmar’s own making. It is an issue solely between Myanmar and its own people, the Rohingyas,” she said. “They themselves have to resolve it. Voluntary return of the Rohingyas to their homes in the Rakhine State in safety, security and dignity is the only solution to the crisis. We will continue our engagement with Myanmar to make repatriation of the Rohingyas happen.”

The comments followed The Washington Post’s report on September 11, 2019, prior to the start of the UNGA General Debate, that claimed Bangladesh is limiting mobile and internet service in the refugee camps, including Kutupalong in the hopes that the Rohingyas will be forced to return to Rakhine State. Further efforts have been made by police in the camps to abscond with mobile phones and halt the sale of SIM cards.

To paint an even bleaker picture, Al Jazeera reported on October 7, 2019 that government officials in Dhaka have been preventing 500,000 children in the various refugee camps in Bangladesh from receiving proper education. Blame has been placed on the UN and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) for not providing the same curriculum that is used in Bangladesh’s schools to the refugees. By international law, children with refugee status are afforded the right to learn lessons from either their country of origin or country of arrival.

“We continue to host 1.1 million Rohingyas who were forced to leave Myanmar due to atrocities committed against them,” Sheikh Hasina said in this year’s address. “The crisis is now lingering into the third [sic] year, yet not a single Rohingya could return to Myanmar due to [the] absence of safety and security, freedom of movement and overall conducive environment in Rakhine State of Myanmar.”

Sheikh Hasina should be applauded for raising the issue, where several dozens, if not more than 100 heads of state, heads of government and foreign ministers did not bother to highlight the Rohingya crisis at the UNGA this year. If Rohingyas were mentioned, their name was mispronounced and given at most a sentence in passing. Nevertheless, Sheikh Hasina admitted herself that it was unfortunate that she once again had to do so.

“I would request the international community to understand the untenability of the situation. The crisis is now going beyond the camps. Despite our efforts to contain it, the crisis is now becoming a regional threat. Moreover, increasing congestion and environmental degradation is challenging health and security in the area.”

Lastly, the PM alluded to achieving full implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State that had previously been chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The commission’s final report was published on August 24, 2017, centring on the lifting of all restrictions on Rohingyas and offering them a path to Myanmar citizenship. Sheikh Hasina also encouraged the establishment of civilian-monitored safe zones in Rakhine State.

To date, however, the UN Security Council (UNSC), UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, International Committee of the Red Cross, Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, and several other human rights watchdogs and aid groups have simply been observers, only able to document the human rights abuses. These groups, although well-intentioned, use varying adjectives and nouns – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, abuses of international law, systematic killings, torture, rape and forced displacement to describe the situation on the ground with little or no effect on the world’s conscience. Most remarkably, Bangladesh has been unwillingly thrust into being a host under the direst of circumstances for a stateless people with an uncertain and perilous future.

More UNSC resolutions, more investigative reports, more special envoys, more UN addresses does not and has not translated into preventing what the international world order and nation states decided was their red line after the Second World War, after Srebrenica, after Darfur, after Libya, Syria and Yemen, and after Rakhine State. Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina and the world at-large has grown accustomed to the fact that ‘Never Again’ was simply a nicely packaged catch-phrase that ensured the First World could sleep at night and was doing its part. The converse is true, and has been for some time.

The view from the UN gallery

By stark comparison to the addresses by India and Pakistan earlier in the day, Sheikh Hasina’s address was much more heavily attended than her counterparts Narendra Modi and Imran Khan, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan, respectively. With the Indian and Pakistani PMs speaking in proximity to one another in the event’s scheduling, the UN took precautionary measures, deploying increased security to separate the two countries’ supporters on the UNGA hall’s fourth floor. As Khan’s 50-minute address repeatedly broached the Kashmir issue, tensions were at a fever pitch.

Admittedly, in the fourth floor gallery for visitors, press and representatives of NGOs, Bangladeshis outnumbered every other member state by several dozen, with more than 300 attendees jockeying for seats and a glimpse at their prime minister and her immaculate purple chadar or shawl.

It is not surprising then, as according to the Pew Research Centre, in 2015, 77,000 Bangladeshis called New York City their home, that they descended upon the UN grounds to lend support to their esteemed countrywoman. More than 40% of Bangladeshi-Americans live in New York and with the upcoming 2020 US Census, the total population figure could climb to more than 100,000 Bangladeshi New Yorkers.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Bangladeshi population in New York City increased 471% according to the New York University Centre for the Study of Asian American Health. Overall, the Bangladeshi population in the US increased by some 41,000 people between 2010 and 2015, or nearly 28%, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.

Bangladesh’s history at the UN

Sheikh Hasina has spoken at the UNGA General Debate each of the last 11 years. The last time Bangladesh had a different representative was back in September 2008 when Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief advisor of the caretaker government spoke about the Election Commission’s work ahead of the parliamentary elections in December 2008; and increased rice prices that resulted in the country’s subsequent food crisis.

Your correspondent was present in the UNGA gallery both in 2012 and 2019 for Sheikh Hasina, one of but a few female elder stateswomen to have represented her country from the rostrum in the 74-year history of the UNGA General Debate.

In 2012 I was writing for Egypt Today, the premier English language current affairs monthly magazine. I described my chance encounter in the middle of the iconic Times Square with a Bangladeshi hot dog vendor from Chittagong. He went on to discuss his cousin’s responsibilities for the UN Bangladeshi delegation during their stay in Manhattan. After consuming a $4 (325 taka) halal hot dog, I conveyed to him that I expected great things from his prime minister.

I wrote at the time that I was not to be disappointed. His PM was undoubtedly one of the highlights for me over the course of the six days of addresses. She sent shivers down my spine when she spoke in the early evening of September 27, 2012, recalling the episode of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, alongside more than a dozen family members, being assassinated. She forcefully concluded her address by stating that extremism in all its forms, including her family’s assassination, cannot continue in its current form. A zero-tolerance approach by all 193 member and observer states must be immediately backed by substance.

That September day in 2012 Sheikh Hasina underscored the importance of education for girls, spearheading the UN’s ‘Education First Initiative’. It was only the previous day that the-then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a $1.5 billion (122.5 billion taka) programme, “[…] to answer the call of parents everywhere for the schooling their children deserve – from the earliest years to adulthood,” the secretary-general said.

Leadership for women, Sheikh Hasina said, begins at the grassroots level. Actioning this initiative, she allocated a minimum of 30% of governmental posts for women. In addition to Bangladesh’s premiership, the leader and deputy leader of the house, the opposition leader and five cabinet ministers are all women.

It was in the very same room at the UNGA in 1974, less than three years after the War of Liberation that Mujibur’s declarations of “friendship towards all, malice towards none”, “peaceful settlement of all disputes”, “renouncement of the use of force in international relations” and “contribution to global peace and security” was a display to his daughter and the world that he was prepared to turn the other cheek. Not missing the opportunity to establish territorial sovereignty, however, this year, Sheikh Hasina ended her address by simply saying, “May Bangladesh live forever” to much fanfare in the building.

Prior to the start of the UNGA General Debate, the UN hosted the first high-level Climate Action Summit on September 23. Several heads of state and government spoke, as well as business leaders, and notably the controversial 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who has sparked climate action protests worldwide. On October 11 an announcement was made naming the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Despite not being named as this year’s recipient, Thunberg was a finalist, in part for her actions, but also for her impassioned speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; the EU Parliament in Strasbourg, France; a TEDxStockholm in Sweden; and her comments in the UNGA hall issuing a determined and emotional condemnation of the world’s leaders.

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg began.

“For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you are doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

Sitting less than three metres from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Thunberg threatened leaders on their climate inaction and empty emission target promises by repeating, “How dare you”. She concluded her remarks by saying, “If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you”.

A taped webcast of Sheikh Hasina’s address can be viewed HERE  at  with an English translation. The address is also available on YouTube  where it has already been viewed more than 427,500 times. Bangladesh’s address on September 27, 2018 at the 73rd UNGA by Sheikh Hasina can be found HERE .

Photo credits:
1. Kim Bell
2. UN Photo/Kim Haughton
3. UN Photo/Cia Pak
4. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

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