On rule of law
"As I see it" column
June 29, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Outside the United Sates, most people have critical opinion about the country. Often the reasons why the US is criticized abroad are good ones. Once in the country legally, the United States is different to how it is perceived abroad. The United States has many pleasant surprises from the point of view of a Bangladeshi. One wonders what our poets would have done if Bangladesh was anywhere near the United States in natural beauty. However, it is not gift of God as the land of plenty and beauty that has made the US what it is today.
It is the rule of law that Americans have achieved that has created the legal framework of statehood that has given its citizens the freedom and opportunity to realize their fullest potentials. The issues with which we concern ourselves in our politics such as democracy, human rights, etc, etc, without success and with humungous waste of time have evolved naturally in the United States with the establishment of a society based on rule of law. It would not be correct to suggest that Americans did not struggle for democracy and human rights. They did but it is the rule of law that they established first that achieved democracy in all its facets and made it sustainable.
The importance of the rule of law in the United States was established to a Bangladesh like me with what happened to its Secretary of Commerce John Bryson recently. He was involved in a road accident while he was in California, his state of residence, where he was on a private trip. The Secretary (equivalent of Minister in Bangladesh) was driving his own car and was involved in two accidents in a span of 5 minutes when he hit two cars. Passengers in one of the cars called police over 911. When police came to the scene, the Secretary was unconscious in the driver’s seat. He was taken to the hospital where his identity was revealed. It transpired that the Secretary had a seizure that caused the accidents.
Since the Secretary was on a private visit, he was not entitled to any security cover that includes when he is on official duty, a chauffeur driven car and security officials in accompaniment. The police of course treated him like any other citizen even after his identity was known to them. He was charged with felony for a hit and run traffic offense to which any other American in his place would have been charged. He was spared being taken into police custody because his accident required hospitalization.
The first action the Secretary took once he was fit to take control of himself was to inform White House of the accident to seek two months official leave to deal with his medical problem and the legal issues related to the accident. As a Minister, he knew that he would not be shown any favour. In fact he knew that as a Minister, any violation of the law by him would be considered more seriously than if he had been an ordinary citizen. More importantly, he knew that as a Minister, unwittingly, he embarrassed the President. After making a careful assessment of his situation, the Secretary resigned from the Cabinet on his own to face the consequences of the accidents under the law.
There are serious lessons for us in this accident concerning the US Secretary of Commerce. Unlike the United States and countries where there is the rule of the law, Ministers of our Government are Ministers with all the fanfare that goes with the position whether they are performing an official function out of their office or attending for instance a wedding ceremony in Dhaka or any part of Bangladesh. Our system gives our Ministers complete immunity from the law in whatever they do, personal or official. If this is not bad enough, the Ministers demand and often receive the same for their family members.
In fact, the laws in Bangladesh are applied based on who are at the receiving end. The law favours those in power by placing them above the law. When the former Minister of Railways fell on the wrong side of the law, his resignation became a “historic” event when he resigned! No one cared to inquire how he became a Minister again after he resigned and what happened to the law! For those who oppose people in power, the laws are applied differently. For example, a lower court sent leading members to jail recently after the High Court granted them bail.
One level over the Ministers, the laws are totally redundant. Such is the state of affairs in our country that one in his/her right mind cannot even imagine that the law would be applied to anyone in the family of the Prime Minister. Of course when a Prime Minister goes to the opposition, the law is used liberally to harass her and members of her family. Out of power, a former Prime Minister, former Ministers and leading opposition leaders do have not even given the minimum protection under the law that is available to the common citizens. .
Thus, despite many decades of movement for democracy, we are today as far from achieving democracy as we have been in our days as a British colony. In a recent discussion program of daily newspapers on a local TV, an Editor made a remark after a parliamentarian of the ruling party had claimed that Bangladesh is a democratic country. He rejected the MP’s claim. He said that neither of the mainstream parties is based on democracy and hence incapable of giving the country democracy. The editor was right about Bangladesh being not democratic. However he was wrong in believing that the country would become democratic with democracy in the parties. The party in power would still subject the law to political ends and use it to serve its interests and harass its opponents.
Therefore, the mainstream political parties need to commit themselves to the rule of the law where the Prime Minister, her family, the Ministers and their families, and those with power and influence and their families and the ordinary people of the country would be in the same footing in the eyes of the law. If only the parties commit to uphold the rule of law and keep their commitment when in power, Bangladesh’s struggle for democracy would have the chance to succeed. Bangladesh needs to see the day when its Ministers would be subjected to the law when they violate it just as the former US Secretary of Commerce John Bryson.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh is regressing in terms of achieving the rule of the law with each successive government. Increasingly, those in power are breaking the law with impunity and getting away with it. In fact, the regression has been sharper under the present government than in the past. As a consequence, Bangladesh is today much more undemocratic than what it was under the previous so-called democratic regimes.
The writer is a retired Ambassador and Secretary to the Government