Published in The Daily Star, April 4, 2008
Article 41 paragraph 1 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states in unequivocal terms: "Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that state." The paragraph does not lend itself to any confusion or conflict in interpretation, and it is respected in every world capital except Dhaka, unfortunately.
I spent 30 years as a diplomat, and I never saw this Article violated anywhere as it is in Bangladesh. Diplomats are privileged, and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations exempts them from legal action, taxation, and a host of other things in the host country, but restricts them unequivocally, by the provisions of Article 41 paragraph 1, from interfering in the internal affairs of the host country.
The charge-de-affaires (CDA) of a country recently met with the AL and BNP top leadership to discuss the election roadmap under the full glare of the media. A number of ambassadors of western countries in Dhaka have been discussing about our internal affairs for quite some time now. During the BNP regime, people gathered a lot of information about inside developments in our politics from these ambassadors' regular media appearances. Their indulgence came to such a head that then foreign minister tried to resolve it because of the embarrassment it was causing the government. Unfortunately, Foreign Minister Morshed Khan went about this in an unprofessional manner, calling the ambassadors "trade unionists," and that too in the media, which further complicated the matter.
Instead of stopping, the ambassadors did the opposite, which encouraged the opponents of the BNP and a large section of the media who failed to see the diplomatic violations but not the embarrassment it was causing the BNP government. The emergence of a good number of private TV channels after 2001 encouraged these diplomats to talk openly and freely.
The role of a high commissioner is a case in point. In the last 4 years he has represented his country in Bangladesh, his "public" posture has been interesting. There is not one domestic issue upon which he has not cared to comment publicly; on our governance, elections, corruption etc.
Bangladesh's politics is far from perfect. We also depend a great deal upon economic aid from our development partners. This relationship sometimes forces us to accept conditions on how we spend their assistance, as well as on issues of governance, because some countries such as the UK tie their assistance to good governance. Ambassadors use this aid issue to express their views on our internal affairs.
These actions of the ambassadors and their missions often also benefit us. However, when ambassadors use the media for conducting such actions where the government is criticised and embarrassed openly, the whole issue turns indecent and bizarre. It is not just that these actions conflict with the Article 43 Paragraph 1 and embarrass the government, they end up humiliating and embarrassing the people of the country.
In 2000, I watched the Egyptian election very closely, where President Mubarak won with over 90% votes, with the opposition almost totally gagged. I did not find any ambassador, US and the British included, giving any critical opinion on that election, other than perhaps in their secret dispatches to their governments or discreet meetings with Egyptian officials, or in very private conversation. We don't see any ambassadors of these countries criticising the governments in the glare of the media as they do in Bangladesh.
Constructive criticism from ambassadors of friendly countries is not, per se, a bad thing. But then, such criticism must be communicated in confidence. No country that has pride, the Vienna Convention notwithstanding, will accept ambassadors so freely criticising its politics or governance before the media as these diplomats do in our country. By these violations, we as a nation are being humiliated without achieving anything positive, because the problems remain where they are. In fact, without realising, these diplomats just complicate the problems further.
There is no doubt that these diplomats are also aware of the Vienna Convention. Why then do they violate this Convention? I was given an insight into this when I was recently discussing this issue with three senior editors. One of them said that it was our politicians who were to be blamed for the way diplomats behaved. When an opposition political party is unable to make the party in power listen to their fair demands, they find the latter receptive only when they get the diplomats from western missions on their side. Another editor told me that the CDA of a country met with the AL and the BNP because of frantic calls from both the parties to meet her to get the US on their side for their current political agenda..
The Foreign Ministry must step in and tell the diplomats firmly that the Government of Bangladesh wants them to adhere strictly to article 41 of the Vienna Convention. Simultaneously, ministries/departments of the government must be careful about meeting ambassadors and high commissioners. I do not see any reason why the ACC chief or the CEC should be meeting with them, unless the latter have issues related to aid and assistance to discuss with them.
The media has a very important role to play here. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we have such a vibrant media, it lacks maturity in diplomatic reporting and has little knowledge of diplomatic nuances and practices. They seek out ambassadors and high commissioners like media personalities, and ask them questions that have no relevance at all to the task for which their countries have sent them here. The media should keep in mind that the diplomats cannot have any public opinion about our internal affairs, and it is just not the right thing to ask them such questions. If they want to speak on our internal affairs, these reporters should remind them the relevant article of the Vienna Convention instead.
The political parties have a bigger role to play. They know more than anyone else that by discussing the country's internal affairs with foreign ambassadors and high commissioners, they are humiliating the country to take political advantage against their opponents, advantage that ultimately does not even materialise. It is not just that they are humiliating their own country; they are also humiliating themselves.
People outside Bangladesh will find it hard to believe that the top political leaders of Bangladesh's two major political parties have held meetings with the CDA of a particular country to discuss the country's election roadmap in the glare of the print and electronic media. The political parties must stop this immediately, for their own sake and for the sake of the country's pride. They can interact with these diplomats, but they should do so outside the glare of the media and be discreet about these interactions.
The diplomats who are violating the Vienna Convention have the ultimate responsibility of putting things in order here. Diplomats must realise that their more than frequent press and media appearances and meetings with host government officials and politicians on issues of the country's internal affairs and politics give rise to beliefs and perceptions in the public mind that are incorrect, and could even adversely affect their bilateral relations with Bangladesh while in no way helping to improve our politics or governance. They should also realise that no other capital would allow such violation of the Vienna Convention.
Diplomacy is an art that bears the best fruit when conducted with discretion and outside media glare. It can, as it is doing in Bangladesh, spoil good intent when conducted in the press and media. The bottom line, Vienna Convention and all the rest notwithstanding, is that diplomats in Bangladesh should keep their views about our internal affairs to themselves, and if their good intentions get the better of them they should convey these views discreetly to their hosts.