How justified is Bangladesh’s position on Ukraine issue?

Debris is seen on site of the destroyed Mariupol children's hospital as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Mariupol, Ukraine, on 9 March 2022.Reuters

The diplomatic front is one of most important fronts in any war. This front fights alongside the actual battleground and economic front. Both the warring sides seek to ensure support of most countries around the globe. The space for this war on the diplomatic front is the United Nations, though it is also true that the success of the UN is not very encouraging in curbing clashes or stopping fights over the last few decades. However, the efficacy of the UN has become dependent on the wishes of the five countries that have veto power in the UN Security Council.

It would not even be an exaggeration to say that the behaviour of the western countries in the UN indicates double standards in their foreign policies. At the same time, neither are the non-western countries like China and Russia free from this double standard. That’s why many people say, the UN actually does not have any such power or effectiveness. It may be said that the UN is not only a political organisation, it has different types of agencies that have been carrying out their responsibilities successfully. But generally speaking, we understand the United Nations to be the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly.

Another reason for the diplomatic battle in the UN is the display of moral strength. Moral victory does not decide results immediately, but helps mobilise global public consensus, which influences the course of war in the long run.

What happened in the UN over the Ukraine war?

Following Russia’s recognition to East Ukrainian cities -- Donetsk and Luhansk -- as sovereign states on 22 February, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement opposing this. He said, “The decision of the Russian Federation to recognise the so-called “independence” of Donetsk and Luhansk regions — and the follow-up — are violations of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, a meeting of the UN Security Council was called. The US and Albania made a proposal to condemn Russia in the 25 February meeting. Eleven countries voted in favour of the proposal while three countries -- India, China and the UAE -- abstained from voting. But the proposal could not be accepted because of Russia’s veto.

Within two days’ of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, Bangladesh’s foreign ministry on 26 February voiced its concerns over the Ukraine situation and called for all types of violence and “stopping military operations in Ukrainian areas”

The UN Security Council sent the proposal to the UN General Assembly session for a discussion. In the session on 3 March, a proposal was made describing Russia’s “military operation” as an “invasion”, to condemn it, opposing the recognition of East Ukrainian cities -- Donetsk and Luhansk -- as sovereign states, and called for immediate withdrawal of Russian army from Ukraine. Out of 191 countries, 141 member states voted in favour of the proposal while 35 countries abstained from voting and five countries, including Russia, voted against the proposal.

What’s the position of Bangladesh?

Four countries of South Asia abstained from voting. They are -- Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Another four South Asian countries voted in favour of the proposal. They are -- Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan. Bangladesh’s abstaining from voting in the UNGA special session has already been discussed. Many in Bangladesh have already described this move as congruent to the country’s foreign policy. But is that so? Do the votes Bangladesh cast in the UN in the past indicate that? We must recall that proposed and accepted proposal is a vote about a country’s sovereignty and geographical unity. We need to understand what Bangladesh’s abstaining from voting transpires.

Within two days’ of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, Bangladesh’s foreign ministry on 26 February voiced its concerns over the Ukraine situation and called for all types of violence and “stopping military operations in Ukrainian areas”. The ministry’s release said, Bangladesh believes, everyone must follow without any exception the UN charter that delineates compulsion to the ban on use of force, respect to sovereignty and geographical unity and peaceful reconciliation of international disputes.

Deputy Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations, Monwar Hossain, presented another version of this statement at the UN General Assembly. Though foreign minister AK Abdul Momen was is New York at the time, he did not take part in any debate at the UN.

Already two ministers have explained why Bangladesh abstained from voting on the proposal. In an interview with a New York-based Bangla TV channel, the foreign minister said, “We are against all types of war. We want a peaceful resolution to this crisis at the initiative of the UN Secretary-General.” The foreign minister said that all types of war and international crises are against the interests of Bangladesh as a small state (Deutsche Welle, 3 March 2022). The foreign minister further said, “Bangladesh abstained from voting at the UN General Assembly as it seeks peace.”

Planning minister MA Mannan said, “We did not vote on Russia-Ukraine issue thinking about the interests of the country.” He also said, “Bangladesh is a member state of the UN, not an employee. We will consider the country’s interests before casting our vote. We are not alone, several countries abstained from voting.” (Jugantor, 5 March 2022)

The next day, the foreign minister said, “If you read the draft, you will see that that is not to stop the war. Rather this is to blame someone. We don’t want war anywhere.” (Prothom Alo, 6 March 2022). What the ministers are not mentioning that this position of Bangladesh is not consistent with its past position in the UN regarding geographical unity and sovereignty of smaller countries and votes it cast in the UN Security Council and General Assembly. An analysis of Bangladesh’s positions in the UN Security Council and General Assembly will reveal this.

Bangladesh’s past positions over sovereignty in UNSC

Bangladesh was the member of UN Security Council in 1979, 1980, 2000 and 2001. Let’s take a look at the Bangladesh votes over geographical integrity and sovereignty at UNSC. The border dispute between China and Vietnam was subject of peace proposal in 1979. China-Vietnam war broke out following Vietnam’s operation against Cambodia. On 15 January 1979, Bangladesh along with six other countries made a proposal condemning Vietnam’s military operation in Cambodia. The proposal was not accepted due to Soviet Union’s veto. On 13 March, Indonesia and four other countries made another proposal. Bangladesh voted in favour of the proposal. But the proposal that was about stopping the war and in favour of geographical integrity of Cambodia and Vietnam was also not taken due to the veto of the Soviet Union that time. That time the Vietnam government was supported by the Soviet and Cambodia government by China.

Three main characteristics of Bangladesh’s voting in UNGA’s 6th to 10th special emergency sessions were – these were in favour of any country’s sovereignty and geographical integrity, the votes were with the majority and thirdly, the country did not consider the stance of powerful countries or the regionally powerful countries

On 6 January 1980, Bangladesh and four other countries made a proposal condemning Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. The proposal mentioned violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty, geographical integrity and political independence. That proposal was also not accepted because of Soviet Union’s veto. Voting took place on the rights of independence of Palestinians on 26 April as proposed by Tunisia. Bangladesh’s voted in favour of that but the proposal was not accepted due to the veto of the US. Bangladesh also voted in favour of Afghanistan’s geographical integrity and sovereignty on 20 December 2001. An analysis of Bangladesh’s voting pattern reveals that the country did not consider powerful country’s stance, rather it voted on the basis of its own principles.

Bangladesh’s voting in special emergency sessions

Bangladesh achieved UN membership on 17 September 1974 and joined the UNGA’s special emergency sessions since sixth (1980) to 11th sessions (2022). In the sixth session, on 14 January, Afghanistan’s sovereignty issue came up and Bangladesh voted in favour of the proposal while India abstained from voting against Soviet Union. The 7th session discussed the Palestine issue, including Palestine’s independence, Israeli aggression, occupying land, in several meetings between July 1980 and September 1982.

The 8th session discussed the independence of Namibia. But the proposal condemning and sanctioning against South Africa in the UNSC could not be passed due to veto of the US and two other countries. The proposal not only called for issuing sanctions against South Africa for its actions in South Africa, it also called for support to the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) that was working for the independence of Namibia. The proposal called different countries to help SWAPO including military assistance. We need to remember this side too because the Bangladesh side defended its voting decision on Ukraine issue saying the proposal was not about condemning only, rather about “blaming”. No one voted against the proposal on Namibia’s independence but 25 countries including the US abstained from voting.

The 9th session in 1982 was about condemning Israel’s occupation of Golan Heights of Syria. Though 21 countries voted against the proposal, Bangladesh voted in favour of it. The 10th special emergency meeting of the UNGA was convened different times between 1997 and 2018, condemning Israel’s attack in East Jerusalem, Gaza and occupied Palestinian territory and setting up settlers there. Bangladesh’s position remained unwavering as it unequivocally supported Palestine’s sovereignty.

Three main characteristics of Bangladesh’s voting in the UNGA’s 6th to 10th special emergency sessions were – those were in favour of any country’s sovereignty and geographical unity, those votes were with the majority and thirdly, the country did not consider the stance of powerful countries or the regionally powerful countries. The first and third characteristics of Bangladesh’s voting were evident even when the country was member of the UNSC. Vetoes against the proposals Bangladesh came up with proves the country’s position was based on principle. But Bangladesh’s position on Ukraine issue in the 11th session did not tally with the majority countries and was clearly different from the principles it has followed until now.

What lies ahead?

The Ukraine issue is not going to end any time soon. The final objective of Russia’s aggression is not clear as yet, but one thing is clear – Russia is resolute to take Ukraine under its control. So it is only natural that Russia will create a kind of occupancy in Ukraine. On the other hand, the US, Europe and other countries will go on putting pressure to end the situation. And, that is why the situation will reemerge in different forms in the UN. Bangladesh will have to decide whether it will vote from its moral stance or whether its vote will be influenced by other compulsions.

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University in the US and nonresidential senior fellow at Atlantic Council and president of American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

* This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Shameem Reza