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“Friendship Towards All”: Explaining Bangladesh’s Abstention From the UN Resolution Over Ukraine

25 Mar 2022
By Hussain Shazzad
Bangladesh's ambassador to the UN Rabab Fatima in 2020. Source: Rafiq Alam1987, Wikimedia,

Bangladesh’s abstention from the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not mean support for Moscow’ invasion. Dhaka’s stance was a considered one, informed by history, culture, and a promising economic trajectory.

On 2 March 2022, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted on a resolution condemning “aggression against Ukraine”, and requesting that Russia cease fighting and unconditionally withdraw its military from Ukraine. The resolution was passed with support from 141 of the assembly’s 193 member states. Five members of UNGA, including Russia, voted against it. A further 35 members — including Bangladesh — abstained from voting on the resolution. Dhaka was stuck between a rock and a hard place — the UNGA meeting represented the most challenging diplomatic decision Bangladesh has faced since the end of the Cold War.

This is not the first time Bangladesh abstained from voting on the Russia-Ukraine issue at the United Nations. Bangladesh also excused itself from the UNGA voting on the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to remain neutral in the Washington-Moscow rivalry. But this time, as it is a full-fledged invasion, it is vital to understand the factors that motivated most South Asian nations, including Bangladesh, to abstain from voting against Russia. Bangladesh’s official stance on this “stress test” at the UN has divided Bangladeshis into two groups with opposing viewpoints. One group, the critics, accuse Dhaka of preferring “realpolitik” over “morals,” asking the question — “How reasonable is Dhaka’s decision to take a neutral stance on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine?”. Their counterparts, another group, raise a different question — “Did Dhaka really have the option to be ‘practical’ and ‘moral’ at the same time?” Four factors contributed to Dhaka’s decision.

First, the core mantra of the foreign policy of Bangladesh is “Friendship Towards All, Malice Towards None” which seemingly prohibits Dhaka from taking a stance in this kind of conflict. Although in some ways this is just a “slogan”, it is one that Bangladesh has consistently practiced — since its birth, Bangladesh has tried to strike a fine diplomatic balance among the major global powers. So, Bangladesh’s decision to sit on the fence in the Russia-Ukraine war is consistent with the country’s existing foreign policy. Moreover, the constitution of Bangladesh advocates for dialogue and discussion in finding a peaceful solution to any crisis.

Second, there is a historical perspective that could be helpful to understand why Bangladesh abstained from voting. In 1971, during the liberation war of Bangladesh, the then USSR, now Russia, directly supported Bangladesh with extensive aid which created a “soft corner”, emotional attachment, among Bangladeshis. Because of this support, Bangladeshis perceive Russia as a “time-tested friend”. And, since the birth of Bangladesh, these two countries have maintained warm ties with remarkable cooperation in the field of trade, investment, military cooperation, cultural exchange and so on. This historical connection with Russia has emotional value, which might have an indirect influence on Bangladesh in taking a neutral stance in the voting. However, of course this does not mean that the Bangladeshis support Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Third, if the US intention was to stop war, then it should have addressed the root cause of the war to resolve the tension through diplomatic dialogue. The aim of this US-backed resolution was not to stop war but to blame Russia and wall off Moscow diplomatically from the rest of the world. This resolution on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine once again turned over a new leaf in the “new cold war” that has simmered between the Soviet Union, the US, and their respective allies since 1990. As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) — a platform of 120 developing countries that are not officially aligned with or against any major power bloc — Bangladesh is not supposed to be officially aligned with, or take a formal stance against, any major global power.

Fourth, Bangladesh is on track to graduate from the category of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), but the country has a diverse range of development stakeholders. Dhaka has a vision to be a developed nation by 2041, and to achieve this has emphasised economic diplomacy with all the major global actors. It is crucial for a country like Bangladesh to take a neutral stance on such cases, as the country has “complex interdependence” with all the “great powers”. For example, the US is the single largest export destination for Bangladesh’s flagship ready-made garments (RMG), accounting for more than 80 percent of the country’s total export earnings, China is the largest trading partner of Bangladesh whereas Japan has become the single largest bilateral donors of Bangladesh with accumulated $24.72 billion financial assistance since the 1972. Complicating matters further Russia has directly assisted Bangladesh in materializing the latter’s aspiration of joining the prestigious “nuclear club” by financing US $12.65 billion for the country’s first-ever nuclear power plant. Bangladesh’s development pace will halt if it takes a stance against any major global actors, which leads the country to abstain from voting. Noteworthy, because of such complex interdependencies, India, Washington’s most trusted ally in South Asia, also abstained from voting.

Voting against or in favour of Russia means picking a side in this new cold war. Diplomatically, it is not wise for Bangladesh to pick the side of any global power. Moreover, refraining from the vote doesn’t necessarily mean that Dhaka is supporting the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Not to mention, Dhaka strongly believes that “diplomatic dialogue” is the only way to resolve the disputes and differences that escalated the crisis.

Bangladesh’s abstention over the UN resolution is part of its long-standing foreign policy pattern of maintaining ‘neutrality’ dating back to its birth. It seems that the crisis has revived a “new Melian” debate where under the coercive approach of the great powers, the small powers find it extremely difficult to maintain neutrality in their foreign policy. This new context has made balancing not only tough, but costly. For example, to balance among the global powers sometimes Bangladesh has to diversify or hedge among the donor states — for instance Bangladesh scrapped a Chinese-funded deep-sea port project at Sonadia Island but commenced a very similar Japanese-funded project in the Bay of Bengal, which may ensure balance at the expense of economic and relational cost.  Clearly Bangladesh is willing to pay this price in order to maintain its foreign policy autonomy, neutrality, and trajectory of economic development.

Countries like Bangladesh will suffer in the long run if the war takes a serious turn. Already, the people of Bangladesh are experiencing a price hike in daily necessary commodities. Moreover, the development trajectory of the country will halt if the war lingers, and the world fails to find a fruitful solution to the crisis. These are the underlying reasons that motivated Bangladesh to abstain from voting on the resolution at UNGA that reprimanded Russia for invading Ukraine.

Hussain Shazzad, a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst, is currently working as a consultant to BEDO, a Bangladeshi NGO. He has completed his B.B.A and M.B.A from the Department of International Business, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Before starting his career as a consultant, he used to work with Palli Karma-Shayak Foundation (PKSF), an apex development organization under the Ministry of Finance, Bangladesh. He is a writer and columnist whose articles have appeared at The Diplomat, The Star, The Statesman, The Daily Star, Daily News, Modern Diplomacy etc.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.