Saturday, October 2, 2010

The limits of diplomatic conduct

Published in The Indepndent, 24th September, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

An European Ambassador’s concerns about Bangladesh expressed at a forum recently, particularly about our politics, were a blatant interference in our internal affairs. The forum was provided by the Diplomatic Correspondents Association of Bangladesh (DCAB) where he was the chief guest. The Ambassador expressed his disapproval for what he termed as “hostile” politics, blaming both the party in power and the opposition for it. When asked if he saw a situation like 1/11 returning to Bangladesh politics sometime soon, the Ambassador said that he hoped not to see the repeat of 1/11 and expected that Bangladeshis would likewise hope that undemocratic governments would not return.

The Ambassador, I am told, has been in Bangladesh for quite some time. In fact, he was here when 1/11 occurred. Therefore he should know what everyone else now knows; that a few of his fellow Ambassadors worked together to “gift” Bangladesh with emergency and General Moin’s rule. At a time when, after the 5th and 7th amendments, the people are determined to see forever the back of military rule, it is imperative that the role that Ambassadors have played in our politics and continue to play, should be discussed to ensure that all avenues for entry of extra-constitutional forces in politics are secured and stopped. Surely questions should be asked why such Ambassadors have encouraged extra-constitutional interventions when they represent democracies and make it incumbent upon themselves to make us democratic!

A lot of what the people think about the western Ambassadors in the context of 1/11 could be conjectures. This notwithstanding, the diplomats themselves have given cause for such conjectures. Their indulgence with the media and politics have been the main reasons for encouraging people to think that behind the scene, they play a very important role in the politics of Bangladesh. These diplomats also forget the nature of Bangladesh society where, despite its huge population, its elite is very small and only a very small group of such elites dominate the country’s private and public lives. Some of the Ambassadors have themselves boasted in private dinners where Bangladeshi elites were present about their roles in our politics that are now common knowledge. There was one particular Ambassador who took pride in detailing his role in the momentous changes in our politics in 2007-2009.

There is of course the issue of diplomatic legality and propriety here. The issues on which the Ambassador from Europe spoke or commented in his speech in the DCAB forum are on Bangladesh’s internal affairs. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations within which diplomats act and operate in the host country strictly prohibits a diplomat from interfering in the host country’s internal affairs. Such a prohibition has been necessary because the same Convention grants diplomats immunity from persecution in the host country. The issue of propriety is also important here because the Ambassador under reference has passed comments on the Prime Minster and the Leader of the Opposition who have both been elected to those positions by the people of Bangladesh out of many considerations, of which respect has been one. The Ambassador by his comments has lowered their estimation in the eyes of the people.

Clearly there is a violation of both diplomatic legality and privilege in the Ambassador’s comments at the DCAB forum. However that was nothing new. The Ambassadors have been doing it all the time. In fact, they have been pleaded and prodded to influence our politics by our mainstream political parties. In my own experience as a diplomat for over 30 years, I have not seen anywhere I have been posted or have travelled anything close to what Ambassadors do in Bangladesh. If the Ambassadors would have expressed even a little bit of the views that they express about our politics in next door New Delhi, they would have been sent packing even before they knew what hit them. Of course, no Ambassador in New Delhi would take leave of his senses and indulge in India’s internal affairs. Before anyone would want to do that, the External Affairs Ministry would put an end to such a desire. Diplomats everywhere, as required by the Vienna Convention, must seek permission of a host Government’s Foreign Ministry to speak at a public forum or before the media. In Bangladesh also in the good old days, such permission was sought as a mandatory requirement and sometimes denied. The way the Ambassadors these days speak at various gatherings, it seems like they have themselves dispensed with such a requirement. Bangladesh is a sovereign nation and its dignity requires that the Foreign Ministry should reclaim this right granted to it by the Vienna Convention under which every country sends its Ambassador to Bangladesh.

The DCAB is clearly not aware of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations for if it were, it would not have invited the Ambassador to speak on the subject upon which he spoke. In the comments on the online edition of a leading Dhaka newspaper, there are a few interesting comments. One reader advised the European Ambassador to ensure greater advantage for Bangladeshi exports to his country and to allow Bangladesh’s environmental migrants to migrate to Europe. In fact, that is a part of the job that brought him to Bangladesh. Bangladesh did not grant him agreement to be an Adviser on our politics and to embarrass us in the media, his good feelings for us notwithstanding that would serve much useful purpose if dealt with outside the media and through diplomatic channels.

It is high time that organizations such as the DCAB and various business chambers that regularly give these ambassadors the forum to tell us how corrupt we are, how confrontational our politics is, are shown the rules and principles of diplomatic conduct, more importantly its limits. It is up to the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh to deliver by playing the role that has been entrusted upon it by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to regulate both the conduct of the Ambassadors and the freedom of organizations to invite the Ambassadors.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and can be reached by email

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