For anyone interested in international affairs, the week of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York represents possibly the most exciting time of the year. Where else are you likely to witness such a gathering of world leaders and diplomats, hardened policy-makers and dreamy idealists, as well as assorted experts in almost every field relevant to our common good, all acting as a magnet for the world’s press.
And these days, where the spotlight is, you get your usual gaggle of celebrities as well, for they are made for it. Each fall, usually the latter half of September, they all descend on Manhattan, the historical birthplace and the beating heart of New York City, to provide a snapshot of the state of the world we live in, of the times we inhabit. It is, to be sure, history in the making.
New Yorkers must put up with the customary interventions that come from hosting a global community, even though “the land occupied by the United Nations Headquarters and the spaces of buildings that it rents” are under the sole administration of the UN and not the US government. They are technically extra-territorial.
That, of course, doesn’t stop the traffic from spilling over, well beyond midtown Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighbourhood that is home to the iconic UN complex. I was in town from Hawaii, where I had just attended IUCN’s World Conservation Congress 2016, and relished the opportunity to get a wind of Bangladesh’s participation at the Olympics of governance, especially in light of our visibly growing presence on the international stage.
Bangladesh today is an acknowledged partner in a number of bilateral and multilateral partnerships with the nations of the world, in a variety of fields ranging from security to the economy to conservation efforts. Its voice is increasingly heard, even sought. Its development model is … well, a model.
The government’s “zero tolerance” approach to terrorism has gained resonance throughout the world, and puts it in good company at the table of the family of nations. This was largely reflected in the person of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as she strutted across the international stage at the head of her entourage.
Her program, based out of the world famous Waldorf Astoria hotel, largely made sense and veered clear of controversy, despite some speculation that Bangladesh might find itself unwittingly embroiled in the belligerent mood-finding succor in its neighbourhood.
But in her address to the General Assembly, the centrepiece of every leader’s program, the prime minister struck an admirably universalist tone
But in her address to the General Assembly, the centrepiece of every leader’s program, the prime minister struck an admirably universalist tone, summed up best in her quoting her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s address in 1974, when he said: “Bangladesh’s total commitment to peace was born of the realisation that only an environment of peace would enable us to mobilise and concentrate all our energies and resources in combating the scourges of poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, and unemployment.”
She also delivered a confident riposte to those who might wish to question the validity of legal processes such as the proceedings of the International Crimes Tribunal initiated by her government to bring justice to the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Bangladesh’s Liberation War.
While advocating her government’s firm stance on ensuring accountability and justice, the PM said Bangladesh will “remain vocal about recognising the role of national judicial processes in ensuring accountability and justice for mass atrocities.”
Identifying “terrorism and violent extremism” as the major global challenges of the present time, she said these menaces were sweeping across borders and no country seems immune, no individual beyond their target.
Before coming to the horrific Gulshan attack on July 1 that brought Bangladesh firmly into the orbit of the international terrorist franchises operating out of the Middle East, she pointed out the indiscriminate killing of innocent people everywhere from the US to Europe, Africa to Asia.
And who could deny her the opportunity to sing her own government’s recent successes in combating this menace, when she said: “Our government did succeed in disintegrating the homegrown terrorist groups, plugging their regular financing pipelines, and flushing out the regional operatives from our territory.”
Then, insightfully, she added: “With the vicious rise of certain international terrorist entities, it appears some of the local fringe elements have drawn inspiration and managed to regroup and rebrand them.” All in all, it was an address whose spirit mirrored the aspirations of this year’s General Assembly.
The next day, the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh at the UN arranged for a morning press conference, to brief media about the outcome of the prime minister’s participation at this year’s UNGA, where she also chaired sessions on development-related topics, and picked up awards for her commitment to women’s empowerment and a digital future for all in Bangladesh.
I took the opportunity to attend the Q&A session and ask her a couple of questions on international topics, in between a volley of queries that largely pertained to domestic politics back home, which seemed to miss the point.
When I asked her about any preferences for the upcoming US presidential election, for which the campaigning is on in full swing at the moment, she skillfully evaded disclosing a choice, like any experienced and right-thinking leader should. She did it by lobbing the question back at me, and we settled on the most sensible choice of going with “whoever worked best with Bangladesh.”
The UN secretary-general’s post is also about to fall vacant in December, and it is strongly rumoured that this time the position will be taken up by a woman. For my next and last question, I asked the PM whether she endorsed that line of thinking, fully expecting a resounding yes.
But in another sign of her growing statesman-like temperament, she tempered her answer, saying while she would be “delighted” were a woman to assume the post, she and her government would be “keeping an eye” out for the candidates and see what other countries were doing, before taking a decision “in due time.” After the press conference, I had the chance to present her with copies of a book on “art against terrorism” that was recently published by the art gallery I run, Gallery Cosmos, in collaboration with Cosmos Books.
When you’re looking out for a nation, the attitude displayed by the prime minister is the sort of outlook you expect. She would leave New York with both her own image and that of Bangladesh enhanced.
Enayetullah Khan is Editor-in-Chief, United News of Bangladesh (UNB) and Dhaka Courier.