Inam Ahmed (IA): Well, let us start with Brexit because we have some stake in it. We still get GSP from the European Union and Britain as well. You said the facilities would continue for Bangladesh but no timeline has been prescribed whether it will continue until 2030 when we will graduate from LDC status. Is there any risk involved in trade with Britain?
Robert Chatterton Dickson (RCD): No. I think trade with Bangladesh will continue as we have said that the GSP preference will continue which is hugely beneficial for Bangladesh. The UK is the second largest European market for Bangladeshi exports. It is a very strong trading relationship.
Major British companies like Primark, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer do huge amounts of sourcing from Bangladesh. They find it a very good place for that and I think the arrangement will continue. We have made clear that the GSP arrangement will continue after the end of our EU transition period at the end of this year.
IA: What about beyond that period?
RCD: For at least three years after Bangladesh's LMIC graduation, the arrangement will continue. Our independent trade policy will evolve, and we are in touch with the Bangladesh Government about a trade dialogue which will enable us to address all these things. So, I am hoping we will have a conversation with the Government about trade and our future arrangements in the early part of next year.
IA: With the second wave of Covid-19 now going on in Britain, what is the outlook for trade, especially garment and apparel trade in Britain?
RCD: There was a significant disruption for the garment trade early in the spring when the pandemic first appeared. But what we have seen now is that more normal trading relationships have been restored. People are still buying clothes. There has been a shift within our market because in the UK during the pandemic there was a shift to online buying.
Retailers with a stronger online offering have been doing better than the retailers who do not have that. Shops will reopen at the end of the lockdown in early December. People will continue to buy clothes and other items. So, the supply chain will continue.
IA: The latest announcement of the 30-billion-pound stimulus package by Rishi Sunak might help.
RCD: It is much more than that. The British Government and the chancellor have announced that the furlough scheme, which enables people to continue to be paid when they are not able to work, will continue until March. And the government is taking extraordinary measures to stimulate the economy.
IA: Do you think British investment in Bangladesh is at a satisfactory level given our shared history?
RCD: British investors play a major role. You know, two of the three big banks here – HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank – are British and have been here for a long time. You have companies like Unilever which have been continuing to invest heavily. You also have British companies in the garments trade and other areas. To keep new investors coming here, the key thing that is needed is the ease of doing business reforms to take effect.
IA: Such as what?
RCD: For example, having a tax system which is more user friendly for international companies, a legal system which enables people who invest here to feel more confident that their investment will be protected and if they need, they will be able to take action through the court system. These are the things that make a country to improve its position in the global ranking system of ease of doing business.
Bangladesh has gone up in the ranking from 176 to 168. The more that can be done to improve the ability of businesses to operate here freely and fairly, the more you will likely to see businesses come in to make investments.
The area where the British economy is strongest is services. So, I think there are big opportunities for British companies in service sectors like finance, education and health.
And the easier the Government makes it for investors to come in, do business and repatriate the money that they have earned here, the more likely that they are going to find that companies will want to come in and take advantage of a very large market that has been growing very rapidly.
IA: If we look at the European Banking Authority (EBA) and the European Union, we found that the European Union has tagged human rights as another precondition for GSP. Do you think a similar step may be coming from the UK government?
RCD: Well, we take human rights very seriously. Having left the EU, we now have the ability to apply sanctions unilaterally. And we do apply sanctions. For example, among the first of the independent sanctions that we have applied after we left the EU was to the top two people in the Myanmar army. We were very concerned about the human rights situation that we have seen there. So, the chief of staff and his deputy have been sanctioned according to our law. We will always take human rights into account in deciding our policy.
IA: And what about the Official Development Assistance (ODA) from the UK? I mean after amalgamation of the Department for International Development (DFID) with Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), I think there has been a considerable cut in ODA.
RCD: Well, there have been two things. There was a reduction in the ODA available in the early part of this year when the pandemic took effect and our economy shrunk by 11 percent. The Chancellor has now announced a temporary reduction in our ODA spending so for the next year and possibly for longer we will spend 0.5 percent of GNI and not 0.7 percent on international development assistance. We will still be among the largest ODA contributors in the G7, giving more in absolute terms than most others but cutting from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent on a temporary basis because of the extraordinary fiscal situation. We are in the most severe recession in the last 300 years.
IA: In that scenario, which are the areas that will get the cuts?
RCD: We will continue to focus on climate, which is very important here in Bangladesh. The work we do globally on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria remains very important. Equitable access to Covid-19 vaccine is also very important.
One of the best development interventions that you can make is to ensure girls receive 12 years of quality education along with boys. Our support for democracy and free media will continue. I am not saying everything else is off the table, but those five issues will continue to be particularly prominent in our development programme.
IA: How is the UK government going to help us get the vaccine, and transport it? Is there any plan?
RCD: We will be doing it through a multilateral system. We expect to work through Gavi and Covax, which are the multi-lateral bodies. It is obviously crucial that morally and in practical terms, vaccine is available to everyone around the world. You cannot have a situation in which a reservoir of Covid-19 is left behind. So, everybody should have access to vaccine. And there are multilateral bodies and mechanisms that exist already for that, and I would expect to use those mechanisms for the distribution.
IA: If we come to global politics and the post-Trump scenario, how do you look at the Middle East with all these polarisations happening with Saudi Arabia and Israel making friendship and the UAE getting into the system. What is happening actually? And there is a prediction that this is all happening to put Iran in a tight corner. How do you explain this? What is the impact on an independent Palestine state with all this?
RCD: We as the UK are clear that the best solution is a two-state solution where you have the two sides living on an equitable basis with peace and dignity alongside each other. So, that has remained our objective along with most of the other international community.
What I would say—and it is like an observer of the situation and not someone who is closely involved—is that there is obviously a massive change taking place. The announcement of diplomatic relations between Bahrain, the UAE and Israel is pretty dramatic. There are media reports on what may or may not have happened between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is dramatic as well if what appears to have happened did happen. There is obviously quite a realignment taking place and I would guess that a lot of this is connected with the view that the people in the region have about Iran and the role Iran has played in the region.
And it may also have a link with the deal on Iran's nuclear programme that we and our French and German colleagues have tried to keep in existence despite all the challenges. So, the Middle East is in a state of flux.
If Israel has diplomatic relations with other parts of the Arab world, clearly that opens up opportunities. And the UK is very keen that the goal should be Israel and independent and sovereign Palestine living in peace, dignity and security.
IA: What about Myanmar? No actual progress has taken place on the Rohingya situation, and we have one million Rohingya population here and that is increasing every day. Why the world is not doing enough to settle this thing?
RCD: We are very engaged with this. The crisis that exists right now is very bad for the Rohingyas, as I have seen when visiting the camps many times. It is terrible for the people who are living in limbo. In the camps, the conditions are very difficult.
It is also, obviously, very bad for Bangladesh. Approximately 860,000 Rohingyas are living there and the original population in Cox's Bazar is 350,000. There is a massive economic, environmental and social impact. There is also a security impact, as we have seen with violence in the camps. There is a latent potential for extremism.
So, it is bad for Bangladesh, it is bad for the Rohingyas, and I think it is also bad for Myanmar as well. Myanmar had been governed very badly by the military as an isolated state for two generations. Our hope is that a civilian government in Myanmar will bring the country back into the community of nations.
Myanmar is now subject to a series of international legal processes under the the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Strong evidence is being collected and preserved by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. So, there is a pretty strong case being assembled against Myanmar.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi felt she had to go to The Hague and defend Myanmar. So it would be very good for everyone if this problem could be resolved. And the more quickly that can happen, the better it will be. But whatever happens, it will take a while for the Rohingya people to return in safe and dignified conditions.
So the Rohingyas have to be supported in the meantime. And we have been giving a lot of resources. The UK has given £293.5 million to the humanitarian effort since 2017.
We think it is hugely generous for Bangladesh to host the Rohingyas. And we have a partnership with the Bangladesh Government to support the Rohingyas in a humanitarian way. The young people need education and the adults need useful things to do so that they can earn a living and have a secure future when they return to Myanmar.
We would like to see repatriation taking place and there are elements that already exist which could support this. The Rakhine Commission produced a report in 2017 and that could be a basis of wider reforms there. Accountability is very important, so the people who were responsible in Myanmar for the crisis can be held accountable in the ICJ or ICC or via other mechanisms.
It would be very good if the Rohingyas can be given a pathway to citizenship because one of the reasons there have been successive waves of Rohingya refugees is because their rights are not secured in Myanmar society. There are 136 recognised minority communities in Myanmar but the Rohingyas are not included.
So, you can see how the situation could be created to make them return – implementation of the Rakhine Commission, accountability for the atrocities committed in Rakhine and citizenship restored to the Rohingyas. That would give a basis to work on.
We are using our position in the UK as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to try to help that happen, working with the Bangladesh government. In the meantime, it is very important that we and our partners in the international community continue to work together with Bangladesh to support the Rohingyas.
As far as moving people to Bhasan Char is concerned, we think it is very important that the UN can do two things – one is to look at the facilities that are in place and carry out a series of technical assessments. The civil engineering is very remarkable. But there is a possibility of cyclones and the UN should look at whether it is a sufficiently safe place to be.
And the other thing is to carry out a protection mission for the 306 Rohingyas who have been living there for several months since they were rescued from boats in the Bay of Bengal. This would help ensure that these people are safe and well and receiving the services they need.
So, the UN needs to do a proper assessment mission of the island to make sure that it is safe and sustainable, and they need to talk to the refugees who are already there. And it may be that the UN would conclude that it is a good place for the refugees. So, we need the UN to come up with the baseline assessment that the international community and the Bangladesh government can agree on going forward.
It would probably be more expensive to support the refugees on an island than in the camps of Cox's Bazar. We had a successful donor conference in October to support the Rohingya population through the next phase of the crisis.
IA: What is your assessment of the post-Trump relationship with China. China has come up as a leader in many fields like climate change. It has projected itself as a victim of trade war because of Trump's subsequent imposition of embargoes and all these things. Now that Trump is gone and Biden is here, how do you look at the relationship with China and how China will play the role in global politics?
RCD: Well, there are some areas that China has taken a lead as you said and the Chinese economy has done quite well during the pandemic. But there are some things China is doing that concern us in the UK. In particular, we are concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and maintaining the agreement between the UK and China about the future of Hong Kong.
We want to work closely with the incoming US administration. And we want to work with China on things like climate where our role as chair of COP26 is particularly important. But there are other issues where we do not agree with China.
IA: Anything else you want to comment on?
RCD: Climate is one of the crucial parts of our partnership with Bangladesh. And it is one of the things that I find exciting as my role as High Commissioner here because it is a huge challenge. The world faces a huge challenge from climate change: every person in the world is facing the threat of climate change in some ways.
It is particularly important for Bangladesh because of the geography. And the UK has a world-leading role as Chair of COP26 next year in Glasgow. Bangladesh is also playing a leading role. The Honourable Prime Minister is the chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. So, it is great to be a part of a crucial issue where there is a strong partnership between the UK and Bangladesh.
There is a particular diplomatic moment in a year's time in Glasgow. And it is great to have a really specific shared challenge that we can work on together with the Government of Bangladesh, alongside our close relationship in trade, defence and all sorts of things.
IA: Bangladesh is entering its 50 years of independence in December. Any words on it?
RCD: We have been a close friend of Bangladesh all the way through. There was very strong UK public support for Bangladesh during the Liberation War – the great demonstration in the Trafalgar Square in support of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu, when he was released from jail in Pakistan, travelled to London first. There is a great picture of his first meeting with a world leader, the then British Prime Minister Edward Heath.
So, there is a very strong partnership which goes back to the period before the birth of Bangladesh, and it has been a very strong partnership ever since. There is a very successful British-Bangladeshi community, which now includes four elected members of the British Parliament. So, there is a very strong relationship, and it is a privilege to be here as a British High Commissioner.
I feel like a conductor of an orchestra with all these different instruments – whether it is defence, trade, climate or the Rohingya issue – and my job is to conduct the orchestra and try to make sure that we play the different notes together in the right way at the right time. It is a great time to be here in Bangladesh, and I am very much looking forward to the next couple of years.
IA: Thank you so much.
RCD: Thank you, too.