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Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji speaks to Kuensel about the Bhutan-UN relationship that has its 50th anniversary today

On September 21, 1971, Bhutan was admitted as a Member State to the United Nations. How significant is the day to Bhutan? Why was it important for Bhutan to become a member? 

Bhutan’s admittance to the UN in 1971 was historic in many ways. Our membership in the UN was realised mainly due to the wisdom and singular drive of His Late Majesty The Third Druk Gyalpo, during whose reign Bhutan’s socio-economic development journey in its current form began. To date, it is one of the most important foreign policy initiatives of the Royal Government.

The UN membership reinforced Bhutan’s status as a sovereign nation and provided a global platform for small developing nations to proactively engage and contribute as a sovereign equal in the multilateral fora. Bhutan has never viewed membership in the United Nations as an end in and of itself, and has always endeavoured to constructively engage with the international community to fulfil the values and principles set forth in the UN Charter.

The 50th anniversary this year is an opportunity to reflect on our national journey over the last five decades, to celebrate 50 years of successful partnership between Bhutan and the UN, and most importantly, to reflect on how we can collectively work to meet emerging challenges.

 

Besides the recognition as a sovereign nation, what were some of the milestones during the 50 years of the Bhutan-UN relationship; or in other words, how did Bhutan benefit from the UNO?

Ever since the UN established their presence in Bhutan in 1974, the UN specialised agencies have been a constant source of technical and financial resources to Bhutan, aiding our socio-economic development. The UN’s portfolio in Bhutan has diversified and grown over the years, and its resource contribution increased from a mere USD 2.4 million in 1972 to USD 120 million in the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP).

The UN’s early engagement with Bhutan were in the areas of the School Feeding Program which has touched the lives of thousands of school children since the seventies, when it began. Many of us are beneficiaries of the School Feeding Program.  The establishment of the national airline Druk Air and National Newspaper are also important areas where Bhutan benefitted during the initial years, to name a few. More recently, the Royal Government, together with the UN, has also successfully accessed much needed critical climate financing windows such as the Green Climate Fund. The UN and its specialised agencies continue to be valuable partners for Bhutan as our challenges and needs evolve.

UN membership, in turn, has provided Bhutan with a platform to contribute to international peace, security, and development. The implementation of Agenda 2030 for sustainable development; adoption of the Happiness Resolution by the UN General Assembly in 2012; and Bhutan’s contribution to peacekeeping operations around the world are noteworthy examples.

The UN has also consistently recognised Bhutan’s remarkable leadership over the years.

In 2019, UNDP presented a Special Recognition Award to His Majesty The King for his leadership in advancing human development and the wellbeing of Bhutanese people. His Majesty was recognised for three major human development achievements in Bhutan: championing Gross National Happiness as a holistic development paradigm; leadership on the environment and climate action which ensured that Bhutan is the only carbon-neutral country in the world; and His Majesty’s guidance, which ensured a smooth transition of the system of governance and strong democratic foundations to be established in Bhutan.

His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo was recognised as the laureate for the Champion of the Earth in 2005, recognising His Majesty’s leadership in protecting Bhutan’s environment through numerous policy initiatives since the 1970s.

Her Majesty The Queen Mother Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck, besides being the longest-serving goodwill ambassador for UNFPA, was also recognised as the laureate for the 2020 UN Population Award. The award was presented to recognise Her Majesty The Gyalyum’s outstanding contribution in raising awareness and devising solutions to population and reproductive health issues.

 

While Bhutan has benefitted from the UNO, what have been some of Bhutan’s major contributions to the UNO? 

In the last 50 years, we have witnessed a coming of age of the Bhutan-UN relationship. As much as Bhutan has benefitted from our UN membership, Bhutan has also made certain notable contributions. In 2014, Bhutan deployed its first peacekeepers marking an important milestone. Since then Bhutan has been contributing peacekeepers to various UN peacekeeping operations. Although modest in numbers, this nonetheless represents Bhutan’s desire and willingness to give back to the UN. Bhutan was also the first troop contributing country to sign a Rapid Deployment Level Agreement with the UN in 2017. As per the agreement, Bhutan annually pledged a Force Protection Company consisting of a military unit of 200 troops in the highest state of readiness to be deployed within sixty days of receiving a notification from the UN.

Bhutan also led the initiative at the UN to recognise 20 March every year as the International Day of Happiness. The UN general assembly resolution to that effect was passed in July 2012, recognising the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world, and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives. It was the first time that the international community acknowledged GDP alone is not adequate to ensure the well-being of people in a country, and that happiness is a fundamental human goal.

 

As Bhutan gears to graduate from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) category by the end of the 12th FYP, how will it change the UN’s involvement in Bhutan?

As Bhutan prepares to graduate from the UN’s List of Least Developed Countries in 2023, and as we continue to implement GNH and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we will explore opportunities to strengthen the foundations for broader partnerships. Bhutan looks to the UN to focus on priority issues that transcend physical borders and require multilateral cooperation. A key area will be to address the impacts of climate change. Regional and multilateral cooperation will remain critical to ensure that graduation is smooth, sustainable and irreversible. We look forward to continuing our engagement with a more agile UN capable of responding to Bhutan’s evolving challenges and needs.

As Bhutan marks 50 years as a UN Member State, how will the occasion be observed?

It was the Royal Government’s intention that the 50th anniversary of Bhutan’s membership to the UN be commemorated in a manner that befits the event’s historical, economic, and political significance. A joint national task force consisting of senior representatives from the Royal Government and the UN agencies in Bhutan was established earlier this year to oversee the year-long commemoration in 2021. The joint national task force’s work was made all the more challenging by the ongoing pandemic, as a result of which many of the planned events could not take place at a scale that corresponds with the occasion. However, numerous events were held throughout the year beginning with the symbolic launch of the commemoration coinciding with the auspicious occasion of the 41st Birth Anniversary of His Majesty The King in February of this year. Some of the events held following the launch include the national essay competition for youth, lighting of the National Memorial Chorten in Blue, tree plantation, and hoisting of prayer flags at Kuensel Phodrang, leading up to a modest celebration today on 21st September 2021, coinciding with the day Bhutan was formally admitted to the UN 50 years ago in 1971. To mark the day, a special commemorative stamp, a coffee table book chronicling the journey of UN and Bhutan, and a documentary will be launched.

 

Any other comments?

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bhutan’s membership to the UN, I would like to convey my deep appreciation to all the members of the UN Country Team both past and present for their continued support and commitment to Bhutan. I would also like to acknowledge the contributions made by numerous individuals who helped shape and guide Bhutan’s relationship with the UN.  Tashi Delek!




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