Vaccine equity, Rohingya crisis, climate change on top of Hasina’s UNGA agenda

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, now in New York, is scheduled to deliver her speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 24 (Friday) with a focus on the issues relating to equity in vaccine sharing, sustainable recovery, climate change and the Rohingya crisis.

This is Prime Minister Hasina's first overseas visit since the outbreak of the Covid-19 in March 2020. Earlier, she addressed the UNGA for 17 times and this is her 18th time joining the UNGA.

Bangladesh says Covid-19 vaccines should be a public good without any discrimination. According to Human Rights Watch, 75% of Covid vaccines have gone to 10 countries. The Economist Intelligence Unit has calculated that half of all of the vaccines made so far have gone to 15% of the world's population, the world's richest countries administering 100 times as many shots as the poorest.

The world's richest countries could have 1.2bn doses that they don't need - even if they start administering boosters. A fifth of those doses - 241 million vaccines - could be at risk of going to waste if they are not donated very soon, a BBC report quoted Dr Matt Linley, lead researcher at Airfinity, as saying. It's likely that poorer countries won't be able to accept vaccines unless they have at least two months left before they expire.

The Prime Minister already attended a high-level side event on "Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (Rohingya) Crisis: Imperatives for a Sustainable Solution" held September 22 and 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.

"We need to go beyond words and rhetoric to have tangible actions to reach a desired outcome which is also the cherished desire of the Rohingyas. Bangladesh will continue to work with all until this solution comes," she said.

Bangladesh arranged the event, while eight other countries, including the UK, Ireland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia co-sponsored it.

A total of 23 speakers from cross-regional countries spoke at the event moderated by Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations Rabab Fatima. All the speakers extended their solidarity with Bangladesh over the solution to the Rohingya crisis, Rabab Fatima, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations, said at a press briefing after the event.

Hasina mentioned that she repeatedly said that these displaced people are Myanmar nationals and they must go back to their homeland, Myanmar, in safety and dignity. "We all, especially the international community, must do everything possible to make this happen."

She reiterated her call to Bangladesh's international friends and development partners to support its efforts in this regard. "The Rohingyas themselves also wish to return to their home. "Resolving this humanitarian crisis is a collective responsibility as its implication goes beyond borders. Delaying this crucial problem jeopardises our collective security."

She mentioned that the growing frustration over the lack of progress in repatriation entices many to get involved in criminal activities, and they are easy prey to extremist ideologies. "This could potentially destabilise the entire region. Therefore, we must act now and with real urgency."

Five proposals

Hasina put forward five proposals to solve the crisis. The proposals are: Ensuring sustainable repatriation, finding a solution to the current crisis in Myanmar, playing a role ASEAN, Taking a 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.

"I'm encouraged to see the strong presence of our key partners today. I believe you all share our concerns and need urgent action to resolve this serious problem," Hasina said.

For the last four years, the Prime Minister said, "We held high hopes that these displaced people could go back to their own homes in their motherland Myanmar in safety, security and dignity. We reposed our trust in the global assembly and community for their repatriation. But Bangladesh's calls have gone unheeded and its hopes unfulfilled.

"We're now in the fifth year of the crisis. Yet, we still hold the hope for a durable solution to this crisis," she added.

She said when the crisis broke out in 2017 with the mass exodus of a million forcibly displaced people from the Rakhine Province of Myanmar to Bangladesh, the choice was to save their lives or to close the border and let them face ethnic cleansing. "We chose to save their lives for the sake of humanity."

Since that mass exodus in 2017, at all the successive UNGAs, Hasina said has been placing specific proposals for a sustainable solution to the crisis.

Hasina said the government has maintained bilateral engagements with Myanmar. At the regional front, it has tried to take on board the major powers, including China and India.

She said Bangladesh has all along tried to have more active involvement of ASEAN. At the multilateral front, it has kept the issue on the table by UN resolutions engaging important countries and the UN agencies.

"Sadly, our efforts for the hapless, uprooted Myanmar nationals returning home to Myanmar has not generated any tangible outcome yet. Till today, not a single one of them could go back to their homeland," she bemoaned.

The Prime Minister said the government has ensured all necessary arrangements to make their temporary stay in Bangladesh safe and secure, despite its resource and land constraints.

"The prolonged stay of such a large population in a congested area is also having serious impacts on the surrounding environment and ecology. Hills and forest lands have been cut down to provide shelters."

Even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic challenges, she said, "We haven't forgotten to ensure the safety and welfare of the Rohingyas. We've remained faithful to our conviction that no one is safe until each one of us is safe. We've included this population in our national vaccination programme."


About the relocation of Rohingyas to Bhasan Char, Hasina said the island has proper infrastructure and, in fact, has better amenities to temporarily relocate about 100,000 of the camp population.

"So far, we've relocated around 18,500 of these people displaced from the camps in Cox's Bazar to Bhashan Char. The relocation is being done on the principle of voluntariness. We expect to see the start of the UN's operation in Bhashan Char soon," Hasina added. She made it clear that whatever Bangladesh is doing is purely on a temporary basis.

The speakers highly commended the bold leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and said they would continue their support to Bangladesh over the issue.

Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen, at the press briefing, said all the speakers agreed for an urgent solution to the Rohingya crisis, saying that the solution lies with their repatriation to Myanmar.

Noting that the Rohingya issue has not been sidetracked due to the Afghan issue, he said, "Many people may say that the Rohingya issue got sidelined with the emergence of the Afghan issue. No, it's still very much current."

Replying to a question, Dr Momen said though Bangladesh has no direct connection with the new military regime of Myanmar, Myanmar publicly announced that its new government would honour the instruments and agreements signed with Bangladesh over the Rohingya issue and want to solve the Rohingya problem through bilateral channels.

Foreign Senior Secretary Masud Bin Momen and PM's Press Secretary Ihsanul Karim were present at the briefing.

Woing US investors

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has sought US investment in various potential sectors apart from the existing energy, banking and insurance sectors as Bangladesh is developing its infrastructure and power supply systems to facilitate FDI.

"The US is, of course, the largest investor in Bangladesh with stakes in energy, banking and insurance sectors. We invite US investment in other lucrative sectors like ICT, renewable energy, shipbuilding, automobile, light engineering, agro-processing, blue economy, tourism, knowledge based hi-tech industries," she said.

Hasina made the call while delivering her speech at the Executive Business Roundtable of US-Bangladesh Business Council at Lotte Palace on Tuesday. US-Bangladesh Business Council president Nisha Biswal presided over the event.

Hasina said Bangladesh is investing heavily on infrastructure development and power supply to facilitate FDI in those areas and other promising sectors in Bangladesh.

The Prime Minister said Bangladesh is ready to start Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations with the US at an appropriate time.

As per the ADB Outlook 2019, she said, Bangladesh is the fastest growing economy in the Asia-Pacific region due to strong leadership, good governance, stable government, political stability, sound macroeconomic policy and right development priorities.

"Rapid urbanisation, increasing consumption of electricity, rapid growth of the middle class, growing connectivity with a massive regional market make Bangladesh an attractive investment destination," Hasina said.

She said Bangladesh is ready to offer from its 100 Economic Zones, one exclusively for American companies, and also invites US investment in its 28 High-Tech Parks. "We're constantly improving our physical, legal and financial infrastructures, and also connectivity as with Padma Bridge and Dhaka Metro-Rail."

Hasina mentioned that Bangladesh has the most liberal investment policy in South Asia and that foreign investment is protected by acts of parliament and bilateral treaties. "Bangladesh recognises US's energy sector cooperation and investment, which has contributed towards building our power generation capacity, now over 25,000 Megawatt."

She also said Bangladesh is looking forward to US investment in renewable energy. "Our ICT sector is growing fast now with a billion-dollar export to 60 countries, with the US being the top destination. The ICT industry is expected to grow nearly fivefold to reach the five-billion-dollar mark with more than 600,000 free-lance IT professionals; Bangladesh is the right place to invest in the ICT sector."

Talking about the demographic dividend and government's focus on developing skilled manpower, she said, it ensures that investors here get skilled human resources at competitive wages.

The Prime Minister also stressed the importance of mutual cooperation and collective efforts to attain shared prosperity in the post-Covid economic recovery. "I assure Bangladesh government's whole hearted support to expand economic partnership between our two nations. We also expect that the Business Council would convince the US government to undertake favourable economic and trade policies for Bangladesh."

Regarding the Bangladesh-US friendship is based on common values and shared interests, Hasina said, "It's reflected in our expanding overall business relations. Our trade relations can be further strengthened with duty free access and other trade privileges in the US market. Bangladesh is ready to commence FTA negotiations with the US at an appropriate time."

Since Bangladesh will graduate from LDC status in 2026 to enhance its global competitiveness and expansion of its export base, it will appreciate US support, Hasina said.

Meanwhile, she said, the US-Bangladesh Business Council may continue to play a catalytic role in raising the present annual bilateral trade of US$ 9 billion to higher figures.

High-level representatives from US leading business companies, including Boeing, Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Mastercard were present at the roundtable.

From Bangladesh side, PM's ICT Affairs adviser Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed Joy, FBCCI President Jashim Uddin, MCCI president Nihad Kabir and BGMEA president Faruque Hassan, attended the programme.

The event was presided over by Jay R. Pryor, Vice President of Business Development at Chevron and the Council's Chair of Board of Directors, and Nisha Biswal, President, U.S.-Bangladesh Business Council and Senior Vice President - South Asia, International Strategy and Global Initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The roundtable, which coincides with Bangladesh's 50th anniversary of independence and the inaugural engagement with Prime Minister Hasina of the recently launched Council - also featured the launch of the U.S.-Bangladesh Energy Taskforce, co-chaired by Excelerate Energy and General Electric (GE), which will provide recommendations to both governments on the role the private sector can play to strengthen bilateral energy cooperation and development, according to US-Bangladesh Business Council.

The virtual roundtable - supported by Chevron, Excelerate Energy, General Electric, MetLife and Visa - convened high-level Bangladesh government officials as well as major U.S. and Bangladeshi companies across sectors like energy, financial services, manufacturing, food and beverage, aerospace and defense, agriculture, healthcare, water, and supply chain as well as major Bangladeshi business associations.

Women's Progress

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said the world needs to act urgently to stop the rollback of hard-earned women empowerment due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Our hard-earned progress is at risk of rollback. We need to act urgently to stop this. For that, we must place women at the front and centre of Covid recovery," she said.

The Prime Minister said this while addressing the High Level Meeting on Women Leaders conveyed by the President of the General Assembly Volkan Bozkır at the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations Headquarters on Tuesday.

She highlighted three points - localising the Advisory Board on Gender Equality, nurturing women-led organisations and convening a leaders' summit to reinforce a common agenda for gender equality -- to bring women progress back on track.

About the summit, Hasina said, "All leaders - not just us - should join and present concrete commitments for advancing gender equality."

The Prime Minister said the Covid impacts have been especially hard for women. "Unpaid care work has increased. Gender-based violence has risen. Unicef anticipates an additional ten million child marriages before the end of this decade."

In Bangladesh, she said, emphasis has been put on women empowerment. In their political empowerment, Bangladesh ranked 7th in the world. An Increasing number of women are joining the workforce.

The PM said almost 70 percent of healthcare workers are women, and they are in the frontline in the battle against the pandemic. More than 80 percent of the country's RMG workers are women, she added.

"Women constitute the majority in the informal economy. Many of them lost their jobs and income. Two million migrant workers, including women have returned home," the PM said.

"In Bangladesh", Hasina said, "To keep our economy moving in the pandemic, we announced 28 stimulus packages worth USD 14.6 billion. Our social safety net programmes have been expanded to cover 11 million people, most of whom are women and children."

She went on saying, "We made special allocation for the women-led SME sector; introduced special skill projects in all districts, and announced interest-free mortgage and loan facilities for women entrepreneurs."

Hasina also mentioned that 333 'helpline' is saving many women and girls from violence and child marriage.

At the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference, she pledged to raise women's participation in the workforce to 50:50 by 2041. "Recently, at the Generation Equality Forum Paris, I committed to ensuring gender equality in the ICT sector by 2041. I stand by those commitments."

The Prime Minister said she strongly feels that women leaders of the world can establish a Women Leaders' Network, which can bring them together, not just for one-off meetings, but to act as a force to ensure real actions to achieve gender equality.

The Covid-19 pandemic has proved to be the most challenging period the world has seen since the Second World War, said the UN secretary-general. Newly sworn in General Assembly president, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, opened the new 76th session, noting that his country's flag is "flying at the highest peak today". He spoke of near-universal "collective anxiety" and hopelessness, not all of which is pandemic-related, saying: "The narrative must change", and that the General Assembly "must play a part in this".

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