Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cabinet Division Backs Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Published in The Independent
Thursday, 7th October, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

A recent circular of the Cabinet Division (CD) should warm the hearts of the career diplomats in Topkhana who have been losing almost everything except their unimpressive building that was once the office of Dhaka’s Commissioner because perhaps no other Ministry wants it! The CD’s circular issued to all the Ministries has forbidden them not to contact foreign governments and donor agencies directly. The Ministries have been reminded that under the Rules of Business (ROB), contacts with foreign governments have to be made through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The requirement was there when ROB was written first soon after 1971 and also when it was revised in 1996. The ROB gave MFA a wide range of duties and responsibilities as the Ministry responsible for formulating and conducting the foreign policy of Bangladesh in accordance with the relevant part of the Constitution.

Over the last few decades, the other Ministries have been showing the right thumb to the MFA on matters of formulating and conducting the country’s foreign policy, with the concurrence of the erstwhile President’s Office; the Prime Minister’s Office ; the CD and of course the other Ministries. As one who has worked in the MFA and have seen closely how the MFA has been systematically deprived of its legitimate role in conducting the country’s foreign relations, I must admit that I am both happy and surprised that the Cabinet Division has finally come out with such a circular. These days we are, for the right reasons, realising the value of the Constitution, fundamental laws, rules and regulations in governance and in our lives. However, there are many who are expressing views in the public debates in favour of the Constitution and laws/rules, have themselves in one way or another stood by or even taken part in actions that have undermined the Constitution or documents such as the ROB.

The annulment of the Fifth and Seventh Amendments are very welcome for constitutional guarantees against military governments that are anathema to the spirit of Bangladesh’s liberation. However, in going after military regimes, it would be unfair to ignore facts that both President Ziaur Rahman and President HM Ershad had received enough encouragement and support from political parties and civilian groups. In case of General Ershad, senior civil servants, particularly those of the ex-CSP vintage, who were very unhappy with President Zia, guided him through the dark alleys to power through the back door, believing that with him as President, the strings of power would be with them. In Ershad’s decade long illegal hold on power he simply put the Constitution in cold storage and conducted governance to suit his whims; that of the armed forces and those who supported military rule. It would not be possible or necessary to detail here the role that the civil servants and for that matter other groups in the country played in Ershad’s scheme of things. However, it would be necessary to find out their roles to ensure that another military leader with their connivance does not usurp power again.

The same civil servants were responsible for usurping the authority and responsibility of the MFA. As a Counsellor in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington in the early 1990s, I listened to a senior civil servant on an official visit to the United States tell us that he did not believe that a Bangladesh Embassy had any other role other than providing protocol assistance to visitors like him from Bangladesh! These civil servants systematically took away from MFA its authority on all subjects other than the innocuous and benign ones in which no one was interested. They cared little about the ROB and nothing at all about MFA. Many among them even thought MFA was really not necessary.

The civil bureaucracy has lost a lot of the dominance of yester years as the erstwhile CSP officers went into retirement. Its cohesion is also not there anymore. These facts notwithstanding, MFA continued to lose its fragile hold on conducting foreign relations as more and more of its functions were taken away and given elsewhere. The decision of the Government to let the CD handle Ambassadorial assignments and the Ministry of Home deal with diplomatic passports are the latest examples of erosion of the powers of MFA. Therefore the move by the CD to come out with a circular in favour of MFA is a surprise. Those of us who have retired as career diplomats know too well that the CD was one Division that we all dreaded when matters of MFA were referred to it for decision.

Although welcome, the CD’s circular may have come about because it is also the Economic Relations Division (ERD) that is being by passed by the other Ministries together with MFA as the ROB makes it mandatory to route aid matters to foreign governments and organisations through both MFA and ERD. It could be that MFA has received “collateral advantage” as CD’s circular was meant to establish ERD’s role and could not be done without collateral benefit to MFA. There are still ex-CSP officers who hold extremely important positions in this Government. It could be their personal views that have led to the circular of the CD. It is difficult to accept that MFA would have on its own received such favour from the present leaders of the Government and the CD. The other reason could be that in the absence of cohesion among the Ministries, each Ministry may have declared independence in dealing with foreign government and donor agencies causing concerns at the highest level of this Government.

A newspaper report on the issue based on investigative journalism mentioned that after recent initiatives with India, a number of Ministries have directly written to regional Governments on issue of trans-shipment from Chittagong port. The Home Ministry has written directly to some governments on the issue of extradition of the convicted killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other fugitives. The Communications Ministry sent directly a list of projects for Chinese assistance that led the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka to ask the ERD if the ROB has been amended! A CD official was led to conclude that these acts have demeaned the image of the Government.

The background of the circular notwithstanding, it is both a legal and correct decision. It should be followed to its logical and legal details to restore MFA to its constitutional role in the conduct of the country’s foreign policy. Before MFA rejoices over CD’s hand of friendship though, it would need to look out for what really motivated the CD to show this act of friendship to avoid possible disappointment.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs.

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