Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK’s Minister for South Asia, the United Nations and the Commonwealth, has just departed following a three-day visit to Bangladesh. In a busy programme of meetings and visits, the Minister reinforced the UK’s commitment to deepening cooperation with Bangladesh across a wide range of issues including trade, security, climate change and the Rohingya crisis.
Lord Ahmad, who is also the UK Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, held meetings with the Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen and with Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, as well as with representatives of civil society organisations and the humanitarian sector.
In his meetings, Lord Ahmad discussed the path to Bangladesh’s landmark graduation from Least Developed Country Status, which is due in 2026. The Minister set out opportunities for enhanced trade and investment between the UK and Bangladesh, with a particular focus on the service sectors in which the UK is a world-leader, including finance, health and education.
Lord Ahmad urged the Government of Bangladesh to implement the relevant rules to allow UK higher education institutions to offer their services in Bangladesh. This would offer young Bangladeshis more choice and support quality improvement across the sector as part of the Bangladesh government’s drive to improve the effectiveness and relevance of Higher Education.
During his meetings, Lord Ahmad had the opportunity to discuss the valuable contribution of civil society, media, and academia to the partnership between the UK and Bangladesh. He acknowledged the challenges facing some of these groups, and highlighted the UK’s commitment to supporting human rights and democratic values. He also supported their commitment to the democratic process ahead of Bangladesh’s upcoming elections.
In his meeting with faith leaders, Lord Ahmad highlighted the importance that the UK attaches to freedom of religion and belief. He also encouraged further focus on inter-religious dialogue, with particular attention to the intersection between freedom of religion and belief and gender equality.
Lord Ahmad also discussed the outcomes of COP26 and looked forward to strengthening the UK-Bangladesh partnership on climate action, which combines expertise and technology alongside the recently-announced £120 million (14.2 billion taka) of UK Aid funding to overcome climate challenges.
On 17 November, Lord Ahmad represented the UK at the Indian Ocean Rim Association Council of Ministers. Speaking in the UK’s capacity as Dialogue Partner, Lord Ahmad said that the type of cooperation that IORA did best would be invaluable in the response to the legacy of the pandemic, climate change and the sustainable use of the Indian Ocean’s maritime resources.
On 16 November, Lord Ahmad visited Cox’s Bazar. The Minister met Rohingya families and community leaders to learn about the persecution they had suffered in Myanmar, and to hear first-hand about the challenges that life in the camps presents. The refugees were clear that they were keen to return home and stressed their gratitude to the Government of Bangladesh for welcoming and protecting them in the meantime. They also explained how important it was that they had access to education and livelihood opportunities while they were still in Bangladesh.
The Minister was struck by the well-organised and well-coordinated UN humanitarian operation in the camps. In particular, he noted the importance of properly registering the Rohingya living there, and the link this provided to the regular distribution of food and cooking gas. The camp infrastructure is being maintained to a good standard with rapid repairs where the weather causes damage that could jeopardise lives. Rehabilitation of the environment was also very much in evidence.
The Minister was concerned to hear about the challenges during the hours of darkness when deteriorating security presented a much greater threat, particularly for women and girls. He was encouraged by the increasing presence of law enforcement agencies and the commitment of the Government to improving security.
Lord Ahmad said:
“My heart goes out to all those affected by recent violence in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar. I was moved by the dignity and fortitude I witnessed amongst the refugees living there. The UK has already provided over £320 million to the humanitarian response to the crisis, and will continue to work with the Government of Bangladesh to support the Rohingya for as long as necessary until their safe, voluntary and dignified return can be guaranteed.”
On 15 November Lord Ahmad delivered a speech to an audience at the Bangladesh Foreign Service Academy, in which he celebrated the first 50 years of friendship between the UK and Bangladesh, and set out his ambitions for the next 50 years. Lord Ahmad also announced new UK funding of £54 million, that will be invested in two new programmes designed to help ensure disadvantaged girls and young people have access to a quality education.
Reflecting on his visit, Lord Ahmad said:
“I am grateful to the Government and people of Bangladesh for their warm welcome this week. Over the past three days, I have been inspired by the people I have met and the quality of our conversations. I was buoyed by the evident strength of feeling, and our shared ambitions for the future. I wish everyone in Bangladesh the very best for your continued Golden Jubilee celebrations next month, and invite everyone to join me in looking forward to many more years of BritBanglaBondhon.”