South Asia

UNGA: Why Did Bangladesh Abstain From Voting on Russian Invasion of Ukraine?

Though Bangladesh and the US have good trade ties, Washington has often been critical of moves made by Awami League governments.

Listen to this article:

On Wednesday, March 2 2021, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted on a resolution demanding an unconditional stoppage to the Russian offensive in Ukraine in a rare emergency session. UNGA resolutions are non-binding and merely showcase the political stance of its members. The resolution was supported by 141 of the assembly’s 193 members. Including Russia, five members of the assembly – the others being Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria – voted against it and 35 members abstained.

While many South Asian countries abstained, here we will look at what might have motivated Bangladesh to abstain at the UNGA. The country also abstained in 2014, at the UNGA voting on the annexation of Crimea.

The domestic polity in Bangladesh is bipolar: on one side there’s the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib; and on the other, there’s the Jamaat-e-Islami-supported Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia, the widow of Lt General Ziaur Rahman, who assassinated Sheikh Mujib with a few of his military associates on August 15, 1975.

The Awami League is seen as friendly to India, even though it has developed close ties to China in recent years. It has cracked down on camps of militant groups from India’s northeastern region whenever it has held power. On the other hand, the BNP has had an anti-India and pro-Pakistan bent and has supported militancy in India’s northeast, the best expose of which was the failed ten trucks case in 2004, which had the involvement of sitting BNP minister Lutfozzaman Babar.

This bipolarity has made other countries also pick their sides and the US is no different. Even though the Awami League government has tried to develop good relations with the US, with which the country has good trade ties, Washington hasn’t reciprocated.

The US had called the January 5, 2014 elections won by the Awami League a “sham and refused to recognise it, doing so only many months later. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated Sheikh Hasina on assuming office on January 12. Russian President Vladimir Putin was close behind, congratulating her on January 14. Even China, which in 1971 was differently aligned politically, had by now developed good relations with the Awami League and recognised the election results shortly after.

The same happened when Sheikh Hasina won the elections in 2019. The US said the elections were marred with “irregularities” but Russia was quick to congratulate Sheikh Hasina on her new term.

In the past, the US and EU had also applied pressure on the Bangladesh government to go ahead with the executions of people found guilty of war crimes in 1971, when the country was formed. Among the prominent people who were handed out death sentences were Motiur Rahman Nizami and Salahuddin Quader (SaQa) Chowdhury, top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP respectively. The latter was convicted on charges of torture, rape and genocide during the 1971 war. Mir Quasem Ali, a former media tycoon and a key financier of the Jamaat-e-Islami, was also executed. 

The US State Department had then released a statement that accepted that “judicial rigour” was applicable to the sentencings but also added that it could not support the executions because the war crimes tribunal does not meet “international standards”.

More recently, on December 10, 2021, the US Treasury Department under President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite paramilitary force that is engaged mainly in operations against Islamist militants, as well as seven of its current and former officers, citing human rights violations.

Even before this, the US had criticised Bangladesh and specifically the RAB, which has been accused of violations by human rights groups also. The RAB engages mainly in operations against Jihadist groups, like the relatively small IS in Bangladesh and neo-Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) – a de-facto armed wing of the Jamaat. Experts consider IS in Bangladesh to be neo-JMB itself as there is common membership and neo-JMB has pledged its allegiance to the central ISIS leadership. Neo-JMB has carried out attacks against India as well. The RAB also has cracked down on the Shibir (the student wing of the Jamaat and short for Islami Chhatra Shibir) which is known to engage in large-scale violence.

Bangladesh, specifically under the Awami League, and Russia have close ties due to historical connections. Presently, Russia is building the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. Bangladesh also buys most of its defence hardware from China and Russia.

There is also a historical side note. It is not a major factor but an emotional one and would have a small bearing nevertheless in Bangladesh’s decision. During the 1971 War of Liberation, the US sent a ten-ship naval task force towards the Bay of Bengal and the UK sent its aircraft carrier HMS Eagle for a pincer attack in the aid of Pakistan. At India’s request, Russia rushed in a nuclear-armed flotilla. That sealed the result of the war in favour of Bangladesh’s freedom fighters (the Mukti Bahini) and its allied Indian military. Mujib was a socialist and was close to the USSR. His daughter carries forward his politics through the welfare centric policies of the Awami League.