By Sonam Tobden Rabgye
The following is based on a talk that I was privileged to deliver at the invitation of the UN Resident Coordinator, Gerald Daly on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Bhutan’s membership to the United Nations.
I was asked to give my perspective on Bhutan’s engagement with the UN during my long career in the foreign service. I thought some of the contents maybe interesting to our younger readers as it provides not only a glimpse of my personal journey, but more importantly information about Lyonpo Dawa Tsering the first Foreign Minister of Bhutan who was Commanded by His Majesty King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck to establish the Foreign Ministry in 1970.
Lyonpo Dawa laid the foundation of Bhutan’s pragmatic foreign policy as per the vision of our Monarchs. As institutional memory is not one of the strong points in our system I think its only fair to remember the legacy and contributions of our past leaders during the historic events marking Bhutan’s entry into the UN 50 years ago.
My own introduction to the UN in Bhutan happened perhaps in the very first week of my joining the Foreign Ministry in 1979. Lyonpo Dawa whose brilliant mind and reputation of being a tough taskmaster intimidated even the senior most officers summoned me to his office! So it was with a sense of trepidation that I entered the threshold of his office. Lyonpo said that the new UNDP building in Thimphu was ready and instructed me to consult the best astrologer in Thimphu to determine the most auspicious date for the formal inauguration. I reported to Lyonpo the chosen date and accordingly the grand ceremony was graced by His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo and Bradford Morse, UNDP Administrator New York.
In order to provide a befitting space for the UN office, Lyonpo Dawa had even managed to nudge another department to surrender their brand new building, as it was the best and only suitable one at that time! I also recall that Lyonpo Dawa made sure a colony of brand new state of the art cottages were built in Chubachu, each with a compound and picket fence for UN staff and consultants since there was no proper accommodation in Thimphu at the time.
And so, at the very dawn of my career I learnt that my King and Minister attached great importance and value to the United Nations. The extra effort and personal interest shown by His Majesty and Minister towards our friends from outside are timeless and invaluable lessons in diplomacy. This tradition of warmth and hospitality from the Highest Offices in the country is happily well preserved even today, but colleagues in the ministry must continue to work extra hard to ensure that it is not diluted at the working level especially as responsibilities become more complex and demanding.
Lyonpo Dawa became the longest serving Foreign Minister in the world for some time. He was at ease with any world leader and working with him was a rare honor as he mentored us and opened our eyes to the world of diplomacy with a firm but caring hand. He was able to analyze complex bilateral, regional and international issues and ensure that Bhutan’s national interest is protected and promoted. He wrote his own speeches and trained us how to draft concise analytical letters and reports.
Lyonpo Dawa was in charge of foreign affairs when His Majesty The Third King took the bold decision to abandon the policy of self-imposed isolation and engage with the international community by joining the UN. HRH Prince Namgyal Wangchuk who led the Bhutanese delegation to New York has rightly attributed our membership to the world body as a “formal recognition of the Kingdom’s sovereignty”.
Lyonpo Dawa also initiated Bhutan’s engagement with the World Bank, ADB and Kuwait Fund making sure Bhutan received soft-loans for socio-economic projects. Bhutan’s close engagement with UNDP for the Round Table Meetings (RTM) with our developmental partners began under the able leadership of Lyonpo Dawa Tsering, Lyonpo C. Dorji and Dasho Lam Penjore. RTMs were meticulously planned and included sensitization missions months prior to the actual RTM, which was more or less a Pledging Conference. He made sure that political issues were excluded from the RTM sessions by personally briefing development partners and clarifying any doubts or questions that they might have harbored.
During my first assignment overseas at the Bhutan Mission New York from 1985 to 1989, I was compelled to step up my game to hold the fort as Officiating Ambassador for a couple of years, which was a challenge and an opportunity. In that capacity I got to sit across the table with legendary senior UN officials like James P Grant of UNICEF, who “probably saved more lives than were destroyed by Hitler, Mao and Stalin combined through his promotion of vaccinations and diarrheal treatments”. (To quote the famous journalist Nicholas D. Kristof). I also met Andrew Joseph, Associate Administrator of UNDP who was like a father figure and very supportive of Bhutan. Leading Bhutanese delegations to the UN General Assembly, drafting speeches and participating in various Committees opened my eyes to the multifarious work done by the United Nations.
As the first Director of the Multilateral Department in the Ministry in 2000 I had the opportunity to interact and see first hand the dedicated work being done by the UN staff in Bhutan, which included Gerald Daly, Renata Dessallien, Diedre, Anoja and others. Taking cue from our King and Minister, we made sure our friends in the UN faced minimum inconveniences and assisted them whenever they faced any personal crisis.
During my tenure as Ambassador to the UN Mission in Geneva in 2003, Bhutan was a member of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). It was a daunting but rewarding experience but with guidance from Thimphu and support of my colleagues in the mission, we participated actively and constructively in the CHR. And when Bhutan was the focus of discussions, we presented our side of the story sincerely and I believe effectively to often demanding interlocutors.
The experience at CHR sessions in Geneva made me realize that even the most developed societies are not perfect and we all had to keep striving to create a better world. We had warm and close rapport with most of the Ambassadors at the UN and WTO as well as officials at UNCHR, ICRC, UNHCR and IOM as we often met at each other’s homes and shared hobbies such as hiking, soccer and golf.
Our membership to the WTO began in earnest during my tenure in Geneva and we reached an advanced stage to be admitted to the WTO. However, it was later decided by the Government to keep the matter on hold, which still appears to be the case. In the international arena it is best not to send mixed signals on important political and economic issues as it gives the impression we either don’t follow through or were not serious in the first place.
The United Nations and its various agencies based in Bhutan have provided much needed support especially in the early stages of our development process. Thanks to its support in human resource development most Bhutanese have undergone training and further studies sponsored by UNDP, WHO, WFP, UNCTAD, UNITAR etc. During the early stages of my own career UNDP sponsored the air travel and stipend for a Masters Degree in International Law & Diplomacy at the prestigious Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston USA. The current UN Resident Coordinator and I are Alumina of this Institute.
Sonam Tobden Rabgye is the former Ambassador at the Permanent Mission of Bhutan to the United Nations, Geneva.