Published in The Daily Star, May 22nd, 2010
IN her present term in office, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken a number of initiatives in foreign affairs that have earned Bangladesh international recognition. Her visit to New York in October; to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in November and her official visit to India in January this year have all brought good results for Bangladesh. Her stand against terrorism during her visit to India and later at the SAARC Summit in Thimpu has attracted positive attention towards Bangladesh.
The Prime Minister has a definite focus on foreign affairs. In her last term also, she had a busy time in dealing with matters of foreign affairs and achieved successes. Notably, in that term she achieved sharing of the waters of the Ganges and the accord on Chittagong Hill Tracts. In this term, she has been giving more attention to international affairs. Apart from some very important bilateral and multilateral visits she has already made yielding good results, she is currently on a trip to South Korea and Malaysia to address in both the capitals multilateral gatherings as a leader of the developing world. The invitation to address the ESCAP Session in Seoul has been extended to the Prime Minister in recognition of her leadership of the developing world in her second term in office.
The Prime Minister's initiatives in foreign affairs will just not strengthen Bangladesh's relations with the outside world; it could more importantly assist Bangladesh in removing the negative image that the country has suffered as a result of negative politics at home. Bangladesh's future depends to a great extent on its external trade, manpower export and FDI for which a good image for the country is absolutely indispensible. In order to assist the Prime Minister to successfully carry out her foreign affairs initiatives and create a positive image for the country; it is equally indispensible that she should have the most professional institutional support for preparing for these visits and for follow up action after these visits. Unfortunately, in this important context there is something seriously amiss in Bangladesh. The institutional support for the Prime Minister's initiatives should be coming from the Foreign Ministry as it is the constitutionally designated Ministry for this purpose. From what appears in print, the Foreign Ministry is being weakened, instead of being strengthened at this critical juncture where, in addition, due to the impact of globalization, the Foreign Ministry worldwide is now a major hub of the government's activities. Instead in Bangladesh, the Prime Minister is depending upon individual support and that too, outside the Foreign Ministry for carrying out her major foreign policy initiatives.
Following the Prime Minister's visit to India, her Economic Adviser has been entrusted the task of expediting the implementation of the decisions and expression of intent reached during the visit in the Joint Communiqué. The Economic Adviser has been doing the coordination function and most recently, he also visited India for the purpose. While a few issues in the JC are economic in nature, the rest are complex matters of foreign affairs and diplomacy. Then there is also the fact that the issues can be driven home over a time frame where an individual even of the stature of the Economic Adviser alone can only play an advisory role and very little more. In other words, for implementing the JC, the approach has to be institutional where there is no scope of looking beyond the Foreign Ministry to carry out this task. The Adviser's brilliance and competence alone cannot deliver the task imposed upon him. A head of state/government can and often does use individuals for specific foreign policy tasks. The task given to the Adviser is qualitatively different; one that can and should be carried out by a Foreign Minister and a Foreign Ministry.
The decision to entrust this task upon the Economic Adviser could also be a hint of a lack of confidence upon the Foreign Ministry. Insiders in the Foreign Ministry cannot think that another Ministry, let alone an individual, would be given the task to deal with issues that are expected to set new directions for Bangladesh's relations with India. To career diplomats, India is their major foreign policy pre-occupation. To take away the coordination function of an extremely important visit to India and give it to an Adviser of the Prime Minister not connected with the Foreign Ministry does not enhance the standing of the Foreign Ministry in the public eye especially when the Foreign Minister in September last year had set the agenda and the tone of the Prime Minister's visit during her official visit to India and was by the Prime Minister's side during the latter's state visit to New Delhi. In addition, the High Commissioner in India is one of Bangladesh's ablest diplomats who enjoys the rank of a State Minister. The follow-up action on the Prime Minister's India visit should have been given to them for the obvious reasons.
This government startled many by placing an inexperienced politician in charge of the Foreign Ministry with another inexperienced politician as her deputy who was later shifted to another Ministry without replacement. The Foreign Service cadre officers are at the core of any Foreign Ministry for success of a country's foreign policy. This Government also started by sending the wrong signals to the cadre officers; that it cannot depend upon them for running important missions. Most recently, it took away the Foreign Ministry's responsibility for issuing diplomatic passports and has given it to the Home Ministry. Given the fact that diplomatic passports are regulated under international conventions that are within the competence and responsibility of the Foreign Ministry, taking away this role is not just a surprising move; it is another development that goes to prove that there are forces within the Government who are working, for some unknown reasons, to marginalize the Foreign Ministry.
There was a time after Bangladesh's independence when the Foreign Ministry was a major hub of governance. It then worked hand in glove with the Prime Minister's Office and was responsible for everything related to the country's foreign relations. In the 1980s, the Foreign Ministry was systematically stripped of most of its powers and responsibilities. The elected governments that came after the end of military dictatorship continued to weaken the Foreign Ministry. The consequences have not been good. Bangladesh gradually lost a lot of its standing in international politics and became known for many negatives that the country did not deserve. A fragmented style of conducting foreign relations where many Ministries have become stake holders without anyone really coordinating together with the partisanship nature of domestic politics left the Foreign Ministry with precious little authority to formulate a coherent foreign policy for the country. The Prime Minister's foreign policy initiatives will become fruitful only if the Foreign Ministry is given the powers necessary to coordinate the foreign policy functions of the Government instead of being a minor stakeholder in that process, under constant threat of losing whatever role it has at the moment.
The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director in the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.