Potential consequences of UN stance on January 11

Asif Yousuf

Published in New Age (July 4, 2007)

The UN in general – and the UNDP in particular – emphasises transparency and accountability in governance. Indeed, these two are the pillars of democratic governance, one of the Millennium Development Goals. By setting this awful example that embodies neither, the UN and its agencies have simply lost the moral authority to advocate for democratic governance. Worse, the same dynamics which drive people to lose trust in opaque and unaccountable governments might undermine the people’s trust in UN agencies as well.

IN THE wake of the declaration of emergency, a lot has been written in the media about the conduct of Western diplomats in Dhaka and a mini-debate has taken place over the rightness or wrongness of their conduct. However, very little has been said of the statement issued on January 11 by the resident coordinator of the United Nations Development Programme, Renata Lok Dessallien, the highest ranking UN official in Bangladesh. Debate on this has been entirely absent in the Bangladeshi media.
The statement reiterated the concerns of the UN secretary general about the political situation prevailing then. It also declared that the UN would regard elections as non-credible and illegitimate. The curious part of the statement is towards the end: ‘The United Nations appreciates the traditional role played by the Bangladesh Armed Forces in support of previous, fully contested elections through the maintenance of law and order, so citizens can exercise their right of franchise. However, should the 22 January Parliamentary Elections proceed without participation of all major political parties, deployment of the Armed Forces in support of the election process raises questions. This may have implications for Bangladesh’s future role in UN Peacekeeping Operations.’
There are two issues at stake here. The first is the transparency and accountability of the UN system itself, while the second is the issue of Bangladeshi sovereignty.
The UNDP resident coordinator wears two hats, one formal and another somewhat informal. She not only coordinates all UN development activity in her formal role but also acts as a representative of the United Nations to Bangladesh in an informal capacity. This statement was obviously made in her latter position, because as the resident coordinator she has no say over any aspect of peacekeeping operations, which fall under the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The question then arises as to who at the UN took the decision to link the role of our armed forces to their participation in peacekeeping operations. Needless to say, the answer to this will be highly difficult to find, given the UN’s lack of transparency and accountability to Bangladeshi citizens or, at times, their government.
Then comes the question of why such a link has been made in the first place. It makes little sense for the UN to do so for its own self-interest, in the backdrop of rising peacekeeping missions and the UN’s perennial trouble in attracting greater numbers and better quality of peacekeepers. It makes even less sense for such a link to be made for Bangladesh, which has been not only one of the biggest contributors to UN missions but has also provided peacekeepers widely regarded to have one of the best disciplinary records. Dhaka has volunteered its troops for some of the most dangerous missions even when no one else had (for instance, Rwanda) and has remained committed in the face of extreme adversity (for instance, Bihac in Bosnia during the Serbian blockade).
Even leaving these questions aside, one is forced to ask if the domestic role played by a country’s armed forces really affects their prospects of participating in UN peacekeeping operations. Given that the Pakistani armed forces staged a coup in 1999 and the leader of their armed forces is still running the country, that the Indian armed forces have regular accusations of human rights violations against them in Jammu and Kashmir, and that these two states along with Bangladesh are consistently among the top three troop contributors to the UN, one would have to answer with a resounding ‘no’.
Yet, the UN took it upon itself to make exactly such a linkage at a delicate time in Bangladesh’s history. Once again, answer to the ‘why’ of it will not be more forthcoming than the answer to the ‘who’. Once again, the lack of transparency is to blame.
Such a link between the domestic role of the armed forces and their peacekeeping role can be considered a breach of sovereignty. Indeed, that is part of the reason why the UN has been hesitant to bar South Asian peacekeepers in the past despite accusations of human rights abuses (the other reason is because it simply cannot afford to lose almost 30,000 peacekeepers). Historically, sovereignty has been a cornerstone of the UN system, and the UN has generally been reluctant to undermine it, except under extreme circumstances such as genocide, ethnic cleansing or other humanitarian crises. The situation in Bangladesh on January 11, though politically unviable, had not reached a stage where it could be classified as a (man-made) ‘humanitarian crisis’. Perhaps, I echo the sentiments of the American right-wing when I worry about the UN undermining state sovereignty. But the truth is that the UN does not have the capabilities to undermine US sovereignty, and has historically restrained itself from violating the sovereignty of its weaker member states. Bangladesh 2007 could indicate a major policy shift.
Without going into heated arguments about the UN’s accountability and transparency, and its ‘right’ or lack thereof to intervene in our domestic politics, let me outline some future, long-term consequences of this particular UN stance for the UN’s own development priorities.
The UN in general — and the UNDP in particular — emphasises transparency and accountability in governance. Indeed, these two are the pillars of democratic governance, one of the Millennium Development Goals. By setting this awful example that embodies neither, the UN and its agencies have simply lost the moral authority to advocate for democratic governance. Worse, the same dynamics which drive people to lose trust in opaque and unaccountable governments might undermine the people’s trust in UN agencies as well.
The lack of respect for state sovereignty by a more powerful actor sends yet another negative message. A healthy respect for those less powerful, for those over whom one has authority, is the very basis of the ‘bottom-up’ development agenda advocated by many (though not all) UN agencies. Such an agenda sees governments discussing issues with stakeholders to hear their concerns and get their inputs before making decisions. The only reason for Bangladeshi elites to do this would be out of respect for those over whom they have power.
True, the UN itself might regard their January 11 statement as a piece of foreign diplomacy (although once again, whose interests they would/should be pursuing is especially open to question), while its development work falls into the domestic sphere. But not everyone might be willing to make that distinction, especially for an international organisation that is highly involved with both spheres and thus comes across as a unitary actor.
Needless to say, its agencies’ credibility as an advocate of ‘listening to the grassroots’ in the domestic sphere will take a beating, if not in the eyes of the general populace, then at least in the eyes of the Bangladeshi bureaucrats and politicians for whom this message is most important. This is a pity, for true development takes place only when everyone from the grassroots above is heard, as Amartya Sen and Mahbubul Haque have argued for years. After having been witness to such an example set by the global elite, will our local elites be willing to follow UN agencies’ suggestions about ‘human development’ or ‘democratic governance’?

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