Diplomatic Correspondent Association of Bangladesh Talk 2021 speech by Robert Chatterton Dickson

The High Commissioner thanked the Diplomatic Correspondents Association Bangladesh (DCAB) for inviting him back for what was his third in this series of talks. He was glad to be able to attend in person and was glad that normal business was starting to resume in Bangladesh due to the improving Covid situation. On the previous day the High Commissioner had been to the airport to greet the Honourable President on his return from the UK. On the following Sunday he would similarly bid farewell to the Honourable Prime Minister on her departure for the UK for COP26 and other bilateral meetings.

The High Commissioner began his remarks by speaking about COP26 and everything the UK hoped would be accomplished over the following two weeks. He said this was the last opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change and to secure a brighter future for the world. Scientific evidence from the International Panel on Climate Change, and evidence from each day’s news, showed unprecedented climate events happening around the world. Wildfires of unprecedented scope in Siberia; extraordinary heatwaves in Canada; floods in Germany; and cyclones in this part of the world, showed that the climate was changing in ways that had profound effects for everyone on the planet.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would lower the risk of these catastrophic events. It was clear that the event in Glasgow was the last, best opportunity to work out how to meet the Paris targets.

The UK, in its role as President, had set four goals for COP26

First, the UK hoped all countries would agree to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with ambitious interim emissions reductions targets, as set out in each country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), by 2030. This would enable the world to keep the goal of 1.5 degrees alive. The UK had published a detailed plan of how it would radically transform its own economy in order to do its part, as a major industrialised economy, to help deliver those targets.

Second was adaptation: improving the way in which countries adapted to the climate crisis and encouraging countries affected by climate change to protect and restore ecosystems, build defences and put warning systems in place. The High Commissioner said the world had a lot to learn from Bangladesh in this regard.

Third was to mobilise finance, including the $100 billion annually that had been promised by developed countries to help developing countries, and helping unleash the trillions of dollars that would be needed from the private sector to make sure the other goals happened. On 25 October 2021 the UK had published a Climate Finance Delivery Plan to provide coherence and clarity on when and how developed countries would meet the $100 billion climate finance goal.

Fourth was to accelerate collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society so that ambition could be turned into outcomes. Over 20,000 delegates were expected at COP, bringing together all the people who would need to work collaboratively to achieve the targets set by world leaders. The High Commissioner welcomed the large delegation that would attend from Bangladesh, led by the Honourable Prime Minister, and which represented many strands of interest for the country.

One of the companies that would represent Bangladesh at COP26 was a solar-energy company called Solshare, whom the High Commissioner had recently hosted for a celebratory event at his Residence. Solshare was a finalist in the inaugural Earthshot Prize, launched by HRH Prince William and David Attenborough, for their work installing small-scale solar power sources which allowed people to generate power on their rooftops and trade excess power back to the grid.

The High Commissioner said there were three areas where Bangladesh had a particular role to play at COP

First, as a leader on climate adaptation and a country highly vulnerable to climate change, Bangladesh could make the moral case for increased investment in adaptation. It could also offer practical experience as one of the founding members of the Adaptation Action Coalition, which puts a particular emphasis on locally-led adaptation on the ground.

Second, Bangladesh could show leadership on mitigation by publishing an ambitious NDC. The High Commissioner commended the radical transformation of Bangladesh’s forward energy plans, including the removal of significant elements of coal-fired power from the plans that the government has to generate the electricity that Bangladesh needs to power its economic growth. The UK hoped Bangladesh would be ambitious in this space.

Third, Bangladesh had a particular role to play at COP26 through the Honourable Prime Minister’s role as Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which brings together 48 climate-vulnerable countries. Bangladesh’s international leadership would be important in ensuring sufficient pressure was applied on the big emitters to reach the ambitious global deal that would be needed.

The High Commissioner then provided his reflections on the wider bilateral relationship between the UK and Bangladesh.

The UK was at an interesting point in its history. The UK completed its transition from the European Union in January 2021. In March, the UK published an Integrated Review of its strategic options as it forged an independent future. The review had identified an opportunity for the UK to re-engage its historic links with the Indo-Pacific region, which was the fastest-growing economic region in the world and a crucial transit point for global trade.

Describing the UK’s admiration for what had been achieved in Bangladesh over the past 50 years, the High Commissioner said he was delighted that the Honourable Prime Minister would be visiting London and Manchester to engage with British businesses during her visit to the UK. In Bangladesh, the High Commissioner said his teams were engaged deeply on issues such as climate and biodiversity, maritime security and many other areas, including working with British businesses to build a trade and investment relationship as Bangladesh graduated from Least Developed to Middle Income Country status.

He said: “Graduation is a milestone not a finishing line. We will continue to work with Bangladesh to achieve a smooth and successful graduation. We have also decided to provide continued duty-free, quota-free access to the UK market for three years after graduation, to 2029.”

As the third-largest individual destination for Bangladeshi exports, this was an important signifier of the UK’s continued commitment to work on this relationship, as was the UK’s status as the second-largest cumulative investor in Bangladesh. British companies such as HSBC, Standard Chartered and Unilever played an important part in the economy of Bangladesh, not least as some of the nation’s largest tax payers. The High Commissioner said the UK would work with new and existing investors to ensure they could add benefit to, and benefit from, the extraordinary success of Bangladesh’s economy.

The High Commissioner said the UK’s strong view was that stability and economic growth – which he hoped would continue in Bangladesh – flourished best for the long term in open and democratic societies with strong institutions, public accountability and competitive elections.

Free media played an important role in this and with Canada, the UK was leading a global campaign on free media. The ability of the press to ask important questions and hold the powerful to account was crucial in a free society. One could see from the global rankings this was not always an easy task in Bangladesh. The High Commissioner admired the courage, persistence and commitment of the media community in Bangladesh in continuing to carry out the role and duties of a free media, despite sometimes facing challenges.

The High Commissioner said that the UK would continue to support plural and democratic practice in Bangladesh, as was set out so admirably in the country’s Constitution. As external friends, the UK supported a fair electoral process, with protections for voters and participants, when the next general election was held. The UK would watch with interest as preparations were made for institutions like the Election Commission and looked forward to that sending a strong commitment on a free and fair process for the elections when they were next held.

The High Commissioner said that he had watched recent terrible events affecting certain communities in Bangladesh with concern. He had made clear in public, and in private, that the UK stood with those who supported tolerance and religious freedom. He noted admiration again for the Constitution of Bangladesh, which enshrined freedom of expression and religion.

Returning to trade, the High Commissioner said he was pleased to hold the first bilateral UK-Bangladesh Trade and Investment Dialogue in February 2021. This had addressed market access barriers and improvements that could be made to the business environment in Bangladesh, to realise the potential of Bangladesh’s impressive growth. The UK hoped the market could be opened up to high-value services of the type in which British companies led the world, including finance, health and education.

The High Commissioner said there was a particular opportunity in education. Many British universities were keen to contribute to higher education in Bangladesh, including through partnerships with Bangladeshi institutions. The High Commissioner was in regular discussion with the Honourable Education Minister about early implementation of the Cross Border Higher Education Act. This would enable more British universities to make their services and world-class education available to young people in Bangladesh, which in turn would enable Bangladesh to develop the better-trained workforce that would be crucial to flourishing as a middle income country. This was a win-win for both sides.

The High Commissioner said the UK was working closely with the Government of Bangladesh on regional security challenges.

A particular challenge was the Rohingya crisis that was created by the actions of the Myanmar army over four years ago. The UK was very clear that it shared the same objective: that the Rohingya should return to Rakhine state in a way that was voluntary, dignified and safe. No one wanted to live in a refugee camp. Events in Myanmar were moving in a way that was worrying, so it seemed likely the Rohingya would remain in Bangladesh for some time to come. The UK was working closely with the Government of Bangladesh to ensure its extraordinary generosity in hosting the Rohingyas continued, and that the funding was in place to provide the refugees with the healthcare, food, shelter, water and sanitation they needed until they could return home. The UK had contributed over £320m to the global response, working closely with allies on camp conditions and building resilience, including against COVID-19.

The High Commissioner was concerned about recent violence in the camps. The UK was exploring ways that refugees could be given more productive ways to spend their time, with the opportunity for them to volunteer, provide camp services and earn basic livelihoods, and for children to be educated.

On a global stage, the UK also made sure the crisis was not forgotten. The UK was the penholder for the crisis in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and worked hard to keep it on the agenda, despite not having full support from all UNSC members. The UK was also using its new status as a Dialogue Partner to ASEAN to support the ASEAN Special Envoy in their work. The solution was leadership. The High Comissioner said:
“We must lead people away from exploiting division, towards healing it.”

The High Commissioner said the UK was continuing to support the Government of Bangladesh on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK was supporting the Bangladesh Ministry of Health to develop a well-coordinated national response plan. It was a positive outcome that the incidence rate was now lower in Bangladesh, meaning events like this could take place. On vaccines, the High Commissioner stressed that the UK was providing global support, including to Bangladesh, through the COVAX programme. The High Commissioner said that, although the UK was not on the front page, it was a significant part of the effort.

Finally, on defence relations, the High Commissioner said he had recently had the privilege of going to Chattogram to welcome Royal Navy ship HMS Kent – the first such visit to Bangladesh for 13 years. HMS Kent had had a wonderful visit and the crew had said their time in Bangladesh was a highlight of their seven-month deployment. There was clearly a great deal of common interest in a whole range of maritime issues, which was a good signal for developing the breadth and diversity of the naval relationship. The High Commissioner was confident that the next visit would be much sooner.

The High Commissioner closed by reflecting on the huge challenge ahead at COP. The UK was looking forward to welcoming the Honourable Prime Minister and the Bangladesh delegation to Glasgow. This was just one of the many ways in which the UK was working on the world stage with an increasingly confident, prosperous and outward-looking Bangladesh, as both countries headed into their next fifty years of partnership. He said:
“It is a huge privilege and pleasure for me to be here as High Commissioner to lead this effort in Dhaka. I’m delighted to be leading this effort on the ground, including today in my third visit to DCAB. Thank you.”

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