Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ambassadors embarass the nation

Daily Sun
June 19th., Sunday
M. Serajul Islam

Disturbing news has appeared in the newspapers about conduct of the Ambassadors in three of Bangladesh Embassies abroad. Two are extremely serious cases of sexual misconduct and impinge upon the character of the Ambassadors concerned. The third Ambassador has offended his hosts so seriously with his etiquette and manners that they have refused to deal with him, not even to discuss our Foreign Minister’s visit to that country.

The news concerning these three Ambassadors has appeared in the media over some length of time. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has however not contradicted the news. There have been media reports that MOFA has conducted investigations and one of the Ambassadors has been recalled. The silence of the Foreign Ministry has led many to conclude that the Ambassadors are guilty as charged.

The way the AL led Government has conducted foreign affairs thus far is unbelievable. At least 5 or six Ministers and Advisers with the Foreign Minister one of them are conducting the country’s foreign relations. In fact, from time to time, more Ministers speak on foreign affairs without caring for MOFA as if it is a common subject for all of them.

This government has shown equally unbelievable laid back approach in appointment of Ambassadors. For the first time ever, all major Bangladesh missions abroad have been given to non-career Ambassadors. In a number of these stations, those named have foreign nationality in addition to their Bangladeshi nationality. Those responsible for the appointments have not even considered serious legal issues. Under oaths that these foreign nationals have taken for their adopted countries, they are obliged to support their country of adoption when required even when it is Bangladesh’s interests at stake.

Prior to the AL’s current term, Ambassadors were appointed after a consultation between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Ministry. After receiving the PM’s approval informally, it was a summary from the Foreign Ministry to the Prime Minister that formalized Ambassadorial appointments. In majority of the cases not involving major posts, the Prime Minister went by MOFA’s recommendations. Even in case of major appointments, the views of MOFA were always an important input in selection of Ambassadors.

That system is now seemingly in disarray. In fact, the announcement of Ambassadorial assignments is no longer the prerogative of MOFA. That function is now with the Cabinet Division. Thus, those who are now advising or influencing the Prime Minister on appointment of career Ambassadors have little knowledge of the Foreign Ministry and its officers. In case of recommending non-career Ambassadors also, they do so with little knowledge of the needs, demands and environment in which the Ambassadors work.

The serious predicament in which the country now finds itself with the three Ambassadors is the consequence of breakdown of the system that worked well in the past by an ad-hoc way of dealing with an extremely important national matter. The case of the career Ambassador among the 3 under scrutiny is revealing.

His appointment was recommended by the PMO with MOFA not consulted. He was sent from a minor station to a major one; a lift from division three to division one! The reaction of those who knew the affairs of MOFA well was one of utter surprise and disbelief who questioned whether Bangladesh had decided to wind up its Embassy in that country. He had not even a remote claim to the post except his ability to reach the PMO over the Foreign Ministry!

There is a serious mismatch in the existing distribution of career Ambassadors to our Embassies. Some bright career Ambassadors are being wasted in less important Embassies. A few not so competent career Ambassadors have been sent to some important Embassies as is the case of the career Ambassador now in the news. The mismatch is due to politics involved these days in appointment of career Ambassadors where MOFA is often powerless to do anything.

If MOFA had decided appointment of the career Ambassador in question, such a mismatch would not have occurred. The reason is a simple one. By the time a career diplomat is considered for an Ambassadorial assignment, his/her ability and credibility or the lack of these qualities is an established fact in the Ministry because the Foreign Service cadre is a small one. Everyone at MOFA knew a disaster was coming when the Government appointed the career Ambassador to the important post!

The case of the two non-career Ambassadors should leave no one in doubt that the poor chaps had no clue about the role of an Ambassador. One has been accused of frequenting night clubs by going there on a motor cycle of a staff of the Embassy! Quite clearly those who recommended their names to the Prime minister did not care to check out their credentials.

The alleged conduct of the 3 Ambassadors has dented the fragile image of Bangladesh that is so vital for our economic future. Such conduct could also affect adversely our bilateral relations with the countries concerned, of which two are crucial for our economic future. It is good that the career Ambassador has been recalled although after a long delay that must surely have offended the hosts. The non-career Ambassadors should now also be recalled without wasting any more time.

Simultaneously, it is also of the utmost importance to put into place a system for appointment of both career and non-career Ambassadors for the ad-hoc system now in place is dangerous for the country. The old system was a good and could be improved by streamlining it further. In any case, in the new system, the primary role for appointment of Ambassadors should be entrusted to MOFA that of course will work under the guidance of the Prime Minister.

It is indeed sad that the AL Government should weaken MOFA the way it has. In its last term, MOFA was given a major role in conduct of foreign affairs. In the final stages of that term, the Prime Minister even gave the Foreign Secretary the charge to conduct negotiations with India when the two countries came close to a serious border conflict, a job that involved many ministries and agencies that he performed successfully. In many instances in that term, MOFA was able to change names recommended by the PMO for appointment as Ambassadors after discussion with the Prime Minister. In return for the confidence placed, MOFA earned for the country credit such as membership in the UN Security Council, Chairmanship of NAM, etc to name a few.

While it may take time to restore MOFA to its rightful place if the Government has a desire to conduct foreign affairs professionally, the procedure of appointing Ambassadors should be straightened without delay for the sake of the country’s image and interests. Career Ambassadors should be chosen not on basis of sycophancy but on merit because there is a terrible mix of bright and below average career diplomats due to all sorts of quotas for appointment in public service. At least one other career Ambassador was recalled under the present Government on issue of character.

Non-career Ambassadors should not be appointed from party activists. They should be given training in the basics of diplomatic conduct and etiquette before they are allowed to go to their posts.

The writer is a former career Ambassador.

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