European Parliament conference calls for dialogue on democracy and trade
Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Contributing Editor, Shottobani
London: A conference held in the European Parliament, chaired by MEP Tomas Zdechovsky, EPP Parliamentary Group and co-hosted by Syed Mozammel Ali from Study Circle London, highlighted the remarkable journey of Bangladesh and its role as the European Union’s leading trading partner. The event focused on various aspects, including Bangladesh’s economic growth, trade relations with the EU, the clothing industry’s pivotal role, and the need for constructive dialogue and recognition of progress in the country. MEP Tomas Zdechovsky said, “A constructive and balanced partnership based on mutual trust and respect is needed. There is confidence that democracy will prevail in the upcoming elections in Bangladesh, which is seen as a symbol of democracy”.
The conference, “Democracy and Human Rights in Bangladesh”, which took place on 7 November 2023 in the Antall 6Q1 conference room, recognised the European Union’s crucial role as Bangladesh’s primary trading partner, accounting for 19.5% of the country’s total trade in 2020. Speakers included the former National Human Rights Commission Chairman, Prof Mizanur Rahman, PhD, Chair of Empowerment through Law of the Common People (ELCOP) and Oxford scholar Dr Rayhan Rashid. The co-host of the event and Chairperson of Study Circle London, Syed Mozammel Ali said, “According to the 2023 Global State of Democracy Report, almost half of the 173 countries around the world suffered a decline in at least one key indicator of democratic performance in the past five years due to reasons, such as the cost-of-living crisis, climate change and Russia-Ukraine war. Bangladesh is no exception, being a populous country with 112 million voters”. Referring to the Islamist parties, Syed Mozammel Ali commented, “If the Western powers are not careful, they will risk pushing the country into the hands of fundamentalists”.
Prof Dr Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of Bangladesh Human Rights Commission, explained that Bangladesh proclaimed its independence in 1971, in a bloody independent war where 3 million lives were lost, to ensure equality, social justice and human dignity for the Bengali people. Being a product of human rights, this country cannot be anything but human rights-friendly”, he argued. Reiterating that the country upholds human rights, such as social rights, the right to education and children’s rights dearly, which is exemplified by the free distribution of 35 million books on January 1st, adding, “We have problems in Bangladesh, but they cannot be comprehended in isolation, and we expect support from our friends in Europe to make our democratic infrastructure stronger, richer, and sustainable.
Oxford scholar Dr Rayhan Rashid from the International Crimes Strategy Forum stressed that “Bangladesh was party to all major international human rights conventions, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court while sheltering 1.2. million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. This demonstrates the commitment of Bangladesh to human rights, but it can also cause governance and resource-related challenges”. He said, adding, “Human rights should not be weaponised for political gains and used as bargaining chips for trade deals. Disinformation is a big challenge for democracies, which shall be countered by fact-checking, engaging with all stakeholders and investigating lobbying money and the purpose”.
Speakers acknowledged the significance of the clothing industry as the key to Bangladesh’s success. Notably, Bangladesh’s GDP skyrocketed from USD 53 billion in 2000 to USD 416 billion in 2021, mainly due to the transformative impact of the clothing industry. “This phenomenal growth marked an almost eightfold increase in just two decades.” summarised Tomáš Zdechovský, host of the conference.
The conference noted that today, every part of Bangladesh has access to electricity thanks to extensive investments in renewable energies. Bangladesh’s remarkable stability and rapid development were highlighted, positioning the country as a South Asian Tiger and a pillar of stability in the region. “What Bangladesh achieved is remarkable. We need to celebrate the massive success,” said Zdechovský. MEP Tomáš Zdechovský stressed the importance of constructive dialogue and expressed the need to appreciate and welcome Bangladesh’s significant progress.
The conference emphasised the importance of building strong and reliable partnerships with Bangladesh instead of resorting to constant criticism. It was noted that continuous criticism may open the door for other global players to increase their influence in the region. The discussion also touched on the forthcoming general elections in Bangladesh, considering them a pinnacle of democracy, with confidence that democracy will prevail.
The European Union’s decision not to send an election observation mission to Bangladesh was seen as a sign of strong relations and high mutual trust, indicating a robust partnership built on trust and respect. The conference provided a comprehensive overview of the positive trajectory of Bangladesh’s economic growth, trade relations with the EU, and the need for fostering a constructive and trust-based dialogue. It concluded with optimism for the upcoming general elections, highlighting the strength of democratic institutions in Bangladesh.
Following the speeches in a brief Q&A session, Dr Tazeen Murshid from Belgium, Hasnat Mia from Germany, and Simona Bishkosca from Belgium participated in the discussion. Among the participants at the conference were distinguished experts and scholars from Bangladesh, UK, France, Germany, Holland and rest of Europe as well as experts, interested groups, and stakeholders from the EU Parliament, the Belgian government, civil society, and mainstream media which included Mahbub Hassan Saleh Ambassador of Bangladesh, Veronika Hroudová Advisor of MEP Charanzová, Renew, Lotte Peters Officer in the EP External Relations, Diana Czajova Office of MEP Štefanec, Paulo Casaca Former MEP, Paloma Servin Officer in INTA secretariat, Sara Marques Félix Advisor in Election Observation department, Jordan de Bono Oficer EP Economic policies department, Sabrina Njem Officer in EPP group secretariat, Simona Bishkoska Officer in EP Human rights department, Nick Powell Political editor, EU reporter, Alexia Ruska Mercouris Officer in EP Outreach department, Nadia Sabattini Officer in Asia/Australia department, Miguel Todelano ECR Policy Advisor, Maggie Huynh Officer in Human Rights department, Mark van Kranenburg Officer in EPP group secretariat, Zuzannna Hebdzynska Officer in Financial department, Jan Osuch Officer in EPP Press department, Nicolo Rinaldi Head of EP Asia/Australia department, economist Willem van der Geest, Dr Tazeen Murshid, Maxim Vandekerckhove, Golam Zilani, Ana Abdi, Ondřej Sojka, Assistant to the MEP Tomas Zdechovsky and Study Circle’s Coordinator Jamal Ahmed Khan amongst others