Canada to remain potentially engaged with Bangladesh amid evolving world order
Canada was one of the few countries that took a very clear stance on the side of Bangladesh’s independence right from the beginning. Under the leadership of the great liberal icon Pierre Trudeau who shared a great rapport with Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The relations between Bangladesh and Canada date back to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, when the then Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau came forward speaking in favour of Bangladesh’s Liberation War at the international level, then in recognising Bangladesh immediately after the independence. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina conferred Friends of Liberation War Honour award posthumously on Pierre Trudeau in 2016, is a testament to the strong historical relations that Canada-Bangladesh enjoy.
Since Canada gave official recognition to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Canadians had hopes of building an enduring relationship based on shared values of democracy, good governance, human rights, pluralism and freedom of speech.
Today, 48 years later, the relationship has become deep and multidimensional. It cuts across so many aspects of human endeavour, and across multiple sectors. It is increasingly multifaceted and can shift from one area to another as circumstances evolve.
The present leaders of both countries have carried on the legacy of their fathers by committing to work together on various issues of international importance, including the fight against terrorism. Canada has also been one of the top five bilateral donors contributing humanitarian assistance to ease the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh since 2017.
Amid the evolving situation, Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Cosmos Group, as part of its Ambassador’s Lecture Series, hosted a symposium titled “Bangladesh-Canada Relations: Prognosis for Partnership” at Six Seasons Hotel in the city on December 7.
Canadian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Benoit Préfontaine delivered the keynote address at the symposium explaining why Canada matters to Bangladesh and why Bangladesh matters to Canada.
Foreign Secretary (Senior Secretary) Md Shahidul Haque who spoke at the event as the chief guest while Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan delivered the welcome speech at the symposium.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, the Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and former Foreign Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh’s previous caretaker government chaired the symposium.
High Commissioner Préfontaine said there are many areas where Canada will continue to “energetically” work with Bangladesh -- bilaterally, regionally and internationally -- as Bangladesh seeks a balanced role from Canada in the evolving world order.
He identified some of the challenges but said that "will not deter" Canada from approaching the decade ahead with confidence on everything that matters for keeping two countries peaceful and prosperous.
Trade, investment, humanitarian issues, defence relations, visa-related complexities came up prominently at the discussion apart from regional and global issues with special focus on justice and accountability front over Rohingya issue.
The Foreign Secretary termed Bangladesh-Canada relationship a trouble-free one which is growing on all fronts.
He said Bangladesh’s relationship with Canada has been very healthy and multidimensional, and it is growing.
Haque said Bangladesh is a "significant force" in South Asia and explained why Bangladesh matters today amid geopolitical realities and global initiatives like Indo Pacific Strategy, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Eurasia corridor.
“We’re eagerly monitoring the evolving world order both in the context of new alliances – IPS, BRI, Eurasia Corridor construct or space gradually coming into force,” Haque said emphasising global role that does not disintegrate the whole process.
Today, the Foreign Secretary said, Bangladesh matters in terms of demography, market, geopolitical location in the whole new evolving world order.
He said they would like to see Canada bringing in some ‘balanced thinking’ as Canada, in the past, always played a role.
Dominant Aspect of Relationship
The Canadian High Commissioner said he expects a continued growth in commercial relationship.
"Bangladesh’s economic growth and the need to industrialise, build infrastructure and create jobs make for a compelling case and Canada’s business community has started paying attention," he said.
The High Commissioner said the commercial relations could become a dominant aspect of relationship, gradually displacing development cooperation as Canada’s main activity in Bangladesh.
Canadian exports to Bangladesh have exceeded $1 billion dollars in 2019, after just 10 months which is a phenomenal increase and an all-time record.
Bangladesh exports to Canada for January-October already exceed last year’s total, setting a new record.
The High Commissioner said trade should diversify to more sectors and products and that in addition to trade, they can do better in areas such as investment, infrastructure and science and technology collaboration.
Mentioning another factor which will help is the change of Canada’s travel advisory for Bangladesh, he said adding that a few weeks ago the recommendation to avoid non-essential travel to Bangladesh was removed.
The High Commissioner said more Canadians will now be able to visit Bangladesh or come here to work.
He said Canadian businesses “do have concerns” regarding reports of human rights violations, corruption, shrinking space for civil society, lack of freedom of expression. "This is something we're raising with government authorities and with Chambers of Commerce."
Dr Iftekhar said Canada and Bangladesh share the belief that countries must work together to preserve the framework that has given peace, stability and development for so long.
“Our strong and excellent bilateral relations are the testimony to those shared values,” he said adding that the relations with Canada expanded across socio economic issues, trade and investment, health and education, climate change and defence cooperation.
Dr Iftekhar shed light on Canada’s behaviour pattern in the region posing a question whether Bangladesh has lessons to take in this regard.
He said Bangladeshi diaspora finds in Canada a congenial home and mentioned that in today’s world, distance is not an impediment to friendship and cooperation provided there is empathy and understanding as exist between the two nations.
He said Bangladesh matters to Canada because of its democratic and secular constitution and they see Bangladesh as another middle power country with which “we are able to collaborate in multilateral fora to advance a rules-based world order”.
Enayetullah Khan said they remain confident that Bangladesh-Canada relations that began in 1972 will keep expanding in every sphere.
“Today, it spans across a broad spectrum of development cooperation, trade and investment and people to people links,” he added.
Khan mentioned that over 100,000 Bangladeshis who have made Canada their home and have been involved in activities that are rewarding to both countries.
Working Closely on Accountability Front
High Commissioner Préfontaine said they are using all tools at their disposal, including sanctions, against Myanmar leaders and companies as well as diplomatic efforts to help find a solution to the Rohingya crisis.
"We fully agree that the causes and solutions to the crisis lie in Myanmar, and this is why we’re using all tools at our disposal to help," he said while appreciating Bangladesh’s support towards Rohingyas.
Foreign Secretary Haque termed Bangladesh-Canada relation a trouble-free one which is growing on all fronts and also highlighted Canada’s supports over the Rohingya issue.
High Commissioner Préfontaine said Canada has a long history of helping and welcoming refugees and their citizens deeply care about what the Rohingya and Cox's Bazar host communities are going through.
He said Canada recognises the immense generosity that the people and government of Bangladesh have demonstrated in welcoming Rohingya refugees and in keeping their borders open to those seeking refuge.
The High Commissioner said Canada was one of the first countries to respond to the crisis, and continues to be a top humanitarian donor.
"We place crucial importance on addressing the urgent needs of crisis-affected populations in Cox’s Bazar, both refugees and those living in the affected host communities," said Préfontaine.
Canada is engaged in “extensive advocacy” and continues to work with the international community to find a way to bring to justice those responsible for gross human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar.
Appreciating Canada’s support on the Rohingya issue, Foreign Secretary Haque said it has been an “exceptional relationship” not only in terms of helping Rohingyas and their basic needs, but also in terms of the whole issue of “accountability track”.
He said Canada acted “very decisively” including passing a very strong resolution in the Senate, and subsequently Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, was stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship over her inaction on military violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslims.
“That’s a very decisive, very significant, and very encouraging decision,” said the Foreign Secretary adding that it was beyond the lip service.
In October 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Bob Rae as Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and he released his report in April 2018, outlining the underlying causes of the Rohingya crisis.
“Bob Rae has been very instrumental on the accountability track,” said the Foreign Secretary mentioning that Bangladesh and Canada are working very closely and trying to find out how best the two countries can collaborate in the coming days in The Hague.
Dr Iftekhar also recognised Canada’s support over the Rohingya issue since the beginning of the crisis that affected Bangladesh largely.
On November 11, Gambia filed a case at the United Nations’ highest court, accusing Myanmar of “genocide” in its campaign against its Rohingya Muslim minority.
Gambia, which filed the case on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to urgently order measures “to stop Myanmar’s genocidal conduct immediately.”
Gambia Attorney General and Justice Minister Abubacarr Marie Tambadou and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi are leading the lawyers on behalf of their respective countries during the December 10-12 hearing at the court in The Hague.
On November 14, the pre-trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorised the Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation for the alleged crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction committed against the Rohingya people from Myanmar.
ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her investigation will seek to uncover the truth. “My office will now focus on ensuring the success of its independent and impartial investigation."
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is among several top Myanmar officials named in a case filed in Argentina for crimes against Rohingya Muslims and it shows the Nobel Laureate, for the first time, has been legally targeted over the crisis.
Bangladesh has been hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas and most of them entered Cox’s Bazar since August 25, 2017 amid military crackdown on Rohingyas in Rakhine State.
Not a single Rohingya was repatriated over the last two years due to Myanmar’s “failure” to build confidence among Rohingyas and lack of a conducive environment in Rakhine State, officials here said.
Bangladesh has so far handed over names of over 1 lakh Rohingyas to the Myanmar authorities for verification and subsequently is expediting their repatriation efforts but Myanmar is yet to take back its nationals from Bangladesh, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here.
Prevention of Terrorism
On prevention of terrorism, the Canadian High Commissioner said the security of Canada is linked to that of other states and everyone knows, preventing and responding to terrorism or transnational crime requires resources, expertise and partners.
He said Canada will continue to engage constructively with regional, bilateral and multilateral partners in driving positive action on global issues such as strengthening global peace and security operations.
“Bangladesh is a key partner in that approach because of your strategic geopolitical location, your embrace of multilateralism and zero tolerance for terrorism,” said the Canadian envoy.
Freedom of Media
Last summer, the United Kingdom and Canada co-hosted a media freedom conference in London this year and it will be Canada’s turn to hosting a similar conference in 2020.
“Our objective is to bring together governments, journalists, civil society organisations and other stakeholders to discuss effective ways to address threats to media freedom,” said the Canadian High Commissioner.
He said they are confident that the conference will constitute a meaningful step against the troubling deterioration in media freedom that is being witnessed around the world.
“We definitely want a large Bangladesh delegation to attend and hope this will become a new area of focus for the Bangladesh-Canada relationship because a free and vibrant media encourages creativity, inspires compassion, teaches and helps build the citizens of tomorrow,” said the High Commissioner.
He said promoting media freedom is a key component of Canada’s advocacy to strengthen the rules-based international order, democratic resilience, and respect for the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The Canadian envoy said Canada’s popularity is increasing as a “study destination of choice” for Bangladeshi families.
The number of Bangladeshi students who chose to study in Canada in 2018 reached 6,500, an increase of more than 150 percent from 2014, he said.
“This is important because when these students return to Bangladesh, often with work experience and sometimes a Canadian citizenship, they become ideal partners for Canadian companies seeking partners or employees,” said the envoy.
He said the next logical step would be for Canadian universities and colleges to become more present in Bangladesh; not for student recruitment but as partners of Bangladesh universities in academic research, in student exchanges or in delivering a joint curriculum for students who cannot afford to go overseas.
Diplomats stationed in Dhaka and former ambassadors and high commissioners, Cosmos Group Deputy Managing Director Masud Khan and Cosmos Group Vice President Nahar Khan took part in the discussion.