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Ensuring ‘Vaccine for All’ in the World: Bangladesh Perspective

image credit: UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

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Health experts and analysts argue that the massive scale of vaccination is the most effective way to save people and the economy around the globe. Meanwhile, one can see a timid response of the global institutions in this regard. The neglect of multilateralism since the very inception of this crisis exacerbated the efforts of different countries, particularly in the developing and underdeveloped regions. The US withdrawal from World Health Organization (WHO) under the Trump Administration greatly hampered the global process in the early days of COVID-19. However, the US has rejoined WHO under the Biden Administration, but it has already been delayed and slowed down the global engagement. As a result, we have witnessed hectic vaccine diplomacy over the past year, where bilateral frameworks have played a pivotal role. It may be mentioned that COVAX was launched by WHO, EU and France in 2020 to deal with the global accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines. Coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the WHO, COVAX aims to ensure vaccines are shared fairly among all nations, rich and poor. However, the worrying issue is that the current level of access to vaccines for the developing and least developed nations is extremely low compared to the developed and rich countries. Against this backdrop, the vaccine for all becomes a critical global need to overcome the biggest humanitarian crisis in a century. Bangladesh has a unique contribution to advance the goal of vaccine for all, for that matter, facilitating the availability and accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines to every corner of the world.

With a motto of ‘vaccine for all’, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, warned the world during her speech for the 31st Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)in September 2020. Bangladesh placed a three-point proposal in the special UNGA session to deal with the challenge of COVID-19: ensuring universal and equitable access to quality Covid-19 vaccine, transferring technology to developing countries to manufacture it locally, and providing them with financial assistance to face challenges in wake of the pandemic. She vehemently asserted that the COVID vaccine is for the global public good. In her words, “It is imperative to treat the vaccine as a ‘global public good’.” In this context, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiative of Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) and Covax facility can play a vital role in this regard. Highlighting the global responsibility of achieving the 2030 Development agenda of the fundamental role of Universal Health Coverage for achieving the SDGs guided by the principle of equity, Bangladesh underscored the need for universal access to vaccines. She argued, “In the same spirit, when it comes to access to vaccines, no one should be left behind … This would help us to defeat the pandemic, save lives and accelerate our economic recovery.”

Bangladesh Prime Minister called upon the developed countries to commit to technology transfer for the local manufacturing of vaccines in developing countries, using IP rights waiver under TRIPS Agreement. Sheikh Hasina reminded the international community that the fates of people across the globe were intertwined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as she called on world leaders to ensure that any proven vaccine is made accessible to all at the same time. She also highlighted the need for multilateralism and reiterated Bangladesh’s ‘unflinching commitment’ to multilateralism as embodied in the UN Charter. She clearly spelled out, “The pandemic has indeed aggravated existing global challenges. It has also reinforced the indispensability of multilateralism.”She emphasized, “The UN, International Financial Institutions (IFIs), civil society alongside the national governments must do their share and actively cooperate with each other to combat Covid-19.” The crux of multilateralism on the COVID-19 global pandemic is pumping necessary financial assistance to the developing countries.

Bangladesh also pointed out that the world should recognize the vaccine manufacturing capacities of developing countries like Bangladesh. She floated the idea that Bangladesh’s pharmaceutical industry has the capacity to mass-produce a vaccine if given the “technical know-how and patents.”Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asserted that Bangladesh is ready to produce Covid-19 vaccines. It is critical to remember that Bangladesh did forecast the current scenarios of vaccine crisis and politics long ago. The situation gets further worse when the US, the UK, and the European Union have all blocked the move of nearly 100 developing countries who petitioned the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive intellectual property protections on vaccines during the pandemic so that they could manufacture generic vaccines domestically. Besides, developing countries, including Bangladesh, approached vaccine producing companies such as Oxford-AstraZeneca to share technical know-how and patents, which has not seen any positive responses. Serum Institute of India, a co-manufacturer of Oxford-AstraZeneca also appealed to the US President Joe Biden to consider exporting raw materials for producing COVID-19 vaccines. Besides, a local company in Bangladesh, Globe Biotech Ltd, also joined the global COVID-19 vaccine race with the announcement of its vaccine named Bongavax that started clinical trials.

The Bangladesh Prime Minister reiterated her vision for the vaccine for all at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference virtually held on 20 April 2021. She clearly uttered that COVID-19 vaccines should be declared as global public goods. She asserted, “Countries producing the vaccines should help others produce the vaccines with a view to attaining universal vaccine coverage.”All nations and international organizations must work together to meet the medical requirements of this pandemic. WHO, GAVI and other relevant organizations must uphold the rights of member states and ensure equity and justice. The prime minister called the COVID-19 pandemic possibly the “greatest global challenge” and emphasized it had brought the world to a crossroad of human history. As cautioned by the Bangladesh Prime Minister in September 2020, the world witnesses a horrific race for vaccines leaving behind billions of marginalized people in the world.

The neglect of the causes of the survival of a great number of humanity by relying on politics, parochial national interests, and diplomatic considerations, the developed world will jeopardize the existence of global society. The so-called diplomacy of ‘zero-sum’ gains has brought about a devastating impact in the age of new normal. One can see alarming statistics of current scenarios in the world regarding vaccine procurement. Out of total worldwide confirmed purchases of Covid-19 vaccines, high-income country confirmed dose total 4.6 billion, upper-middle-income country totals 1.3 billion, lower-middle-income country total 608 million, low-income country total 670 million and COVAX total 1.12 billion. Besides, vaccine diplomacy has turned into a race for intensifying bilateral frameworks that contributes to more competition and rivalry in the world. Countries from Africa to Latin America have been witnessing this trend. Rivalries between the vaccine manufacturing countries such as the US vs China, Russia vs the US, India vs China, EU vs Russia and China are on display in the global arena.  

In conclusion, Bangladesh’s 3-point proposal in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic through equitable access to vaccines must be the basis of any global or regional initiatives. It is the formula for saving humanity from the greatest disaster on earth. It is an inescapable option for the world to immediately declare COVID-19 vaccine as a public good that the Bangladesh Prime Minister urged to the world in the UNGA in 2020. Intellectual property rights mechanisms be immediately relaxed for sharing technology with Pharmaceutical companies in countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, India and Indonesia to produce vaccines for the world. Fair and equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines must be based on the slogan of ‘vaccine for all’ and no time lost or delayed to save the humanity and economy.

Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.

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South Asia

Bhashan Char Relocation: Bangladesh’s Effort Appreciated by UN

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Bhashan Char. Image source: dhakatribune.com

Bhashan Char, situated in the district of Noakhali, is one of the 75 islands of Bangladesh. To ease the pressure on the digested camps in Cox’s Bazar and to maintain law and order, Bangladesh has relocated about 18,500 Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps to the island since December last year. The Rohingya relocation plan to Bhashan Char aligns with the Bangladesh government’s all-encompassing efforts towards repatriation. The initial plan was to relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the clogged camps to the island. From the onset of the relocation process, the UN and some other human rights organizations criticized the decision pointing to remoteness and sustainability. UNHCR showed their concern over the island’s susceptibility to seasonal storm and flood. They proposed for a “technical assessment” of the Bhashan Char facilities.

An 18-member UN delegation visited Bhashan Char Island on March 17 this year to have a first-hand assessment of the housing facility for the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Shortly after the UN’s visit, a team with 10 diplomats including heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands also went to the island on April 3 to appraise the facilities. All the members of the technical team opined that they are ‘satisfied’ with the facilities in Bhashan Char. The experts of the UN told, they will hand over a 10-page report of their annotations and they have already submitted a two-page abridgment. On April 16, they released the two-page synopsis after a month of the visit.  After the three-day study of Bhashan Char by the UN delegates, they recommended the Bangladesh government to continue the relocation process to the island in a ‘phased manner’. The team twigged three points – education for Rohingya children, increasing heights of the embankments and better communication system. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A. K. Abdul Momen concerted to take the necessary measures to create a safe and secure environment for the Rohingya refugees until the repatriation takes place. The relocation is not the solution of the Rohingya crisis rather the over emphasis of the relocation and facilities inside Bangladesh is protracting the crisis and distracting the attention from the broader emphasis on the repatriation to Myanmar.

The UNHCR and other concerned parties should plan for a long run repatriation process. Repatriation is the only durable solution, not the relocation of the Rohingya refugees. For the time being, resettlement under the Asrayan-3 project is an ease for the FDMNs but in the long run the Rohingya crisis is going to turn as a tremendous threat for regional peace and stability. Besides, resentment in the host community in Bangladesh due to the scarce resources may emerge as a critical security and socio-economic concern for Bangladesh.  It is not new that the Rohingyas are repatriated in Myanmar during the Military rule. Around 20,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the 2000s. The focus of the world community should be creating favourable conditions for the Rohingyas to return safely regardless who is in the power seat of Myanmar-civilian or military government. The UN should largely focus on repatriating the Rohingya refugees in a “phased manner”, let alone deciding their concern in the camps and the Bhashan Char. After the praiseworthy relocation plan, they should now concentrate on implementing speedy and durable repatriation. Proactive initiatives are essential from all walks for a safe and dignified return of the FDMNs. To be specific, the relocation is a part of the repatriation, not the solution of the problem. 

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South Asia

Afghan peace options

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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South Asia

Pakistani Fanatics and their Foreign Policy Overtures

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A prudent leader ought to have regard not only for present troubles but also for future ones. They must prepare with every energy because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time. Through not having been foreseen, they have been permitted to grow in a way that everyone can see them, there is no longer a remedy. These words are famously attributed to 16th-century Italian Philosopher Machiavelli, advising the ruler about statecraft, in his Magnus Opus, The Prince.

A similar kind of ignorance and obliviousness against which Machiavelli was warning to the ruler of the state was reflected by the government of Imran Khan when protests by a radical religious organization (TLP) shook the country from 11-20 April. Previous to this latest episode, TLP has also staged various sit-in and violent protests by which they effectively froze all life in twin cities as well as in various cities of Punjab.

2017 Faizabad interchange protest was the zenith of its anarchical behavior. In that protest, TLP demanded the resignation of the law minister altering the oath declaration in the election bill 2017. Preceding, the court heard a plea on the stated matter. Justice Qazi Faiz Essa while hearing a plea on the case, remarked; “The ambitious leadership of a fledgling political party [TLP] projected itself as the defender of the Muslim faith. They provoked religious sentiment, stoked the flames of hatred, abused, resorted to violence, and destroyed property worth Rs.163 million.”  Another takeaway from the ruling of the Supreme Court goes like, “Protestors who obstruct people’s right to use roads and damage or destroy property must be proceeded against by the law and held accountable.”

Qazi Faiz Essa’s observation is enough to make a viewpoint on the organization. It is recommended that steps must be taken to curtail the reach of TLP. But allowing its leaders to further myth-spin bogus and inflammatory narratives, catch the attention of masses, effect normalcy in the country, and take hostage federal and provincial capitals many times after that shows sheer incapability on behalf of the state.

Moreover, the recent episode is also another criticism of religiosity interwoven within Pakistani society that has been exploited by opportunists to gain the support of the masses since its birth. TLP, an amalgamation of religio-political narrative, first appeared on the scene when it demanded the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the person who assassinated Governor Punjab Salman Taseer for criticizing blasphemy laws. After the execution of Qadri, Rizvi laid the foundation of Tehreek-E-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) for the purpose to protect the Blasphemy laws of Pakistan under the banner of protecting Honor for Prophet (PBUH). TLP is the political wing of TLYR which emerged as the 5th most popular political group in the electoral race of 2018. These numbers are a barometer to show that the party has gained considerable support among the masses for its narrative

Though the rise of TLP is attributed to fault lines within the domestic political culture of Pakistan and cultural cleavages that exist in the society. The recent protests were the result of its activeness in international affairs relevant to its narrative. The group tried to dictate the foreign relations of Pakistan. In the latest episode, TLP took on the streets again and demanded severing diplomatic ties with France. In the short aftermaths of TLP protests, European Parliament has adopted a resolution calling the review of the GSP+ status of Pakistan for abuse of blasphemy laws and expressed deep concerns over prevailing anti-French sentiments.

To add insult to injury, all of this is happening at a time when Pakistan is looking to create a soft image for herself, seeking an effective role in regional and international organizations for political and economic benefits, lobbying to move out of FATF grey list, and initiating an international campaign to unmask Indian state-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir, etcetera. Unfortunately, this has seriously jeopardized our pursuit of national interests and can nullify progress.

Disrespect for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is an issue sensitive to all Muslims but there is always a better way of doing things. The goal should be to stop disrespect and blasphemy and not forging further cause of hatred. On the other hand, the French president defended the acts as Freedom of Expression – a value so dear to the west – so even if Pakistan sends the French Ambassador back and suffers all the losses, is there any assurance for improvement in a situation regarding blasphemous content? What will be the next step of TLP if this continues? What will be the alternatives for Pakistan after that? Surely, this calls for some reflection on self-proclaimed defenders of religion. Government, on its part, must opt for softer and diplomatic ways in reaching out to France and making them realize the severity of the issue for Muslims.

To sum up, State ought not to be bogged down by religious pressure groups and fanatics like TLP for the reason being that they have not understood long-term national interests. Pledging to Khadim Rizvi on moving the parliament about French ambassador was never a wise act. One should have been vigilant enough to access the Omens. Furthermore, the government must impart this to such groups that they must not test the nerves of the state. It is in the interest of the state as well as government to not let things slip out of hand and go this further hereafter where one more episode similar to this makes international isolation inevitable.

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