Millennium Post

A historic footprint

Proclamation of the International Mother Language Day was an unforgettable experience

November 17, 1999, will be etched in my memory forever. On that day, the plenary Thirtieth session of the General Conference of UNESCO had formally adopted Bangladesh's draft resolution on the proclamation of February 21, our "Mohan Shaheed Dibash", as the International Mother Language Day – a befitting tribute to our immortal language martyrs and a historic achievement for the entire nation.

On November 12, 1999, as Bangladesh's Permanent Representative to the UNESCO, I had the privilege of formally introducing the draft resolution at the Second Commission of the Conference. The resolution was adopted unanimously at the Commission and sent to the Plenary session for formal adoption, normally a mere formality. We, however, had reasons to believe that some opponents of the draft resolution were planning to block the resolution there. Fortunately, they could not muster enough support, and our resolution was unanimously adopted at the Plenary. To someone not familiar with multilateral diplomacy and who was not directly involved in the lobbying process, the adoption process at the UNESCO might seem smooth sailing but, for those of us who had been pursuing the matter tirelessly for six weeks, it was a moment of relief and delight.

Apparently, our draft resolution, which had underscored the need to preserve all mother languages, should not pose any problem to any member-country. In reality, however, language is a highly sensitive political issue in a number of multi-lingual member countries, especially in Europe. The delegations of those countries were aware that the language movement was a historic starting point of our movement for freedom and nationhood, and were apprehensive that the proclamation of the Day would trigger off new unrest in their countries. Some of these member countries from Europe were main contributors to the UNESCO's budget and had significant influence in all deliberations, hence, naturally, we had to proceed to the matter with utmost caution and circumspection.

It is necessary to acknowledge here that the initiative originally came from some of our expatriates living in Canada. They had formed a multilingual Group along with other nationals and the group had initially approached the United Nations Secretariat for the proclamation of February 21st as the International Mother Language Day. The UN directed them to contact the UNESCO – the most relevant UN organisation to deal with the language issue. Accordingly, the Group's President, late Rafiqul Islam, had contacted UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. But UNESCO, like the UN, is an Inter-governmental body and they cannot accept any proposal from private bodies or individuals. So they, in turn, asked him to contact any member-country. Late Rafiqul Islam contacted me, and Tozammel (Tony) Huq, a Bangladeshi senior official at UNESCO Secretariat. Both of us encouraged him and explained to him how they should approach our relevant authorities.

Our Hon'ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made the bold decision and approved their proposal and directed us to formally submit to the UNESCO Secretariat as an official proposal of our Government. We received this communication just two days before the convening of the General Conference.

The Secretariat, however, in their comments on the draft resolution, had raised objections on both procedural and budgetary grounds. Since our proposal was submitted directly to the General Conference, the highest UNESCO organ, the Secretariat had suggested that there should be a feasibility study of our draft resolution and that their recommendations should be submitted to UNESCO Executive Board through the Advisory Committee on Linguistic Pluralism and Multilingual Education before submitting it to the next session of the General Conference. Secondly, in view of UNESCO's serious budgetary problems, they had pointed out that the financial implications of our proposal should be clearly spelt out.

I did not accept the Secretariat's position and together with Tony Huq, met the then UNESCO Deputy Director-General, Colin Power, and explained to him that the main thrust of our draft resolution was to create greater international awareness for the protection and preservation of all mother languages and if we had to go through the procedure as suggested by the Secretariat, many more languages would be lost in the process. In regard to the budgetary implications, we assured him that the implementation of our draft resolution would not require any extra budget for the UNESCO, as each member-country would be free to draw up their own national programmes to commemorate the day.

Colin Power, an Australian national, was fully aware of the importance of the issue and, after our long discussions, finally directed the Secretariat to withdraw their reservations and submit our draft resolution to the Second Commission of the General Conference for its consideration. I also met the Commission's Chairman, J Boulmer of Slovakia, and urged him to take up our draft resolution at the Commission as soon as possible.

The major challenge before us was enlisting the support of about 185 UNESCO member countries. Since our Government had no time to contact any member country through our Missions abroad, the entire lobbying efforts had to be undertaken in Paris. In retrospect, I think it was a blessing in disguise, The UNESCO delegations generally include professionals and intellectuals and they normally enjoy considerable freedom. Contacting their Foreign Ministries would have unnecessarily curtailed their flexibility. Secondly, these global lobbying efforts would have attracted unnecessary media attention, both at home and abroad, which in turn, would have made it impossible for us to pursue the matter through quiet diplomacy.

The multi-pronged strategy that we worked out included playing prominent and constructive roles in the deliberations in various Commissions, strengthening our ties with active delegations from different geographical groups, and establishing cooperative ties with them on the basis of supporting/co-sponsoring of each others' draft resolutions on a reciprocal basis. Due to our vigorous efforts, we were able to enlist support of a large number of countries and co-sponsorship of about 28 member countries including India, Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Egypt, Malaysia , Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Russia, the Philippines, Oman, Surinam, Slovakia, Honduras, Comoros, Gambia, Chile, Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, the Bahamas, Benin, Belarus, Vanuatu, Micronesia and Lithuania. Subsequently, Pakistan quietly withdrew their co-sponsorship.

As one can see, among the EU members only Italy had agreed to co-sponsor our draft resolution Other EU bigwigs as UK, France and Germany had privately extended their multilingual members like Belgium,

Spain, and Portugal etc. I personally met Heads of all these delegations and explained to them that the thrust of our resolution was to protect all mother languages as a heritage of mankind. We also highlighted the fact that linguistic differences do not cause warns intolerance does, and that respect for each other's mother languages would only strengthen national and international solidarity.

Given the extreme sensitivities on the language issue, some co-sponsors suggested to me that while introducing the draft resolution, I should give a broader perspective to enlist maximum support. Our biggest fear was that if a single delegation asked for a feasibility study or for its submission through the Linguistic Committee and Executive Board, then we would find it extremely difficult to dissuade them.

Finally, on November 12, I was given the opportunity to introduce the draft resolution at the Second Commission. In our broad-based statement, I underlined the primary role of UNESCO in the preservation of languages, expressed concern at the fast disappearance of mother languages, and emphasized the need to proclaim an International Mother Language Day to create greater awareness. As regards earmarking February 21st as the day, I recalled the supreme sacrifice that our martyrs had made in 1952 for the preservation of our mother language Bangla-an unprecedented event in contemporary history.

Fortunately, our vigorous behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts worked, and a number our co-sponsors spoke strongly in favour of our draft resolution proposal. In the face of broad-based support, the multi-lingual European member countries did not oppose our draft resolution and the Second Commission unanimously adopted it. The whole operation was conducted with surgical precision.

After formal adoption of our resolution, the UNESCO, Director-General Koichiro Matsuura formally launched the Day at the UNESCO headquarters on February 21, 2000. The multi-lingual EU group spear-headed by Belgium and fully backed by the then EU Chairman Portugal tried to block the event on budgetary grounds. Colin Power again came forward and thwarted their move. The Bangladesh Embassy/Permanent Mission arranged a musical soiree at the launching ceremony. It was a glorious day for Bangladesh.

(Syed Muazzem Ali had introduced the resolution at the UNESCO General Conference on November 12, 1999, as Bangladesh Permanent Representative. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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