The Daily Sun
Jule 8, 2012
M. Serajul Isam
The Foreign Ministry under this government is being used to do those functions of the government that are to say the least, unpleasant. When the Indian Prime Minister had come to Bangladesh last September, the Foreign Secretary was asked to summon the Indian High Commissioner to express extreme displeasure of the government about the withdrawal of the Teesta deal from the talks of the two Prime Ministers. In fact, the Foreign Secretary informed the Indian envoy that Bangladesh was withdrawing the land transit deal from the table in retaliation. It was left to the FS to puncture the prospects of a new era of Bangladesh-India relations from taking off.
Recently, the Foreign Ministry summoned the German CDA to the Foreign Ministry to convey Bangladesh’s dismay, displeasure and concern at some of the comments the German Foreign Minister made at the Joint Press Conference that he held with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister after the conclusion of his official talks. The German CDA was informed that the Minister had no business making comments about unacceptable human rights situation, freedom of expression, etc in Bangladesh, first because these were internal matters of Bangladesh, and, second, that the issues were not discussed at the official meeting.
By these summons, the Foreign Ministry has shown that either in its competence, there has been a great deterioration in the conduct foreign relations or that it is being used to cover the faults of others in the Government without being given the responsibility of running the country’s foreign affairs. In case of the summoning of the Indian High Commissioner, there was no doubt that the Indian side had let Bangladesh down at the proverbial eleventh hour when it withdrew the Teesta Deal. The whole nation was upset and angry with India. Everybody in Bangladesh felt Bangladesh had been betrayed after it had given India seven ULFA terrorists and a trial run on land transit at great political risks.
However, the decision to call the Indian High Commissioner when the Indian Prime Minister was already in Dhaka was a very unusual decision. In terms of conducting relations, this was something that was tantamount to insulting a head of state of a friendly country who came on an official invitation. The correct decision would have been for the Prime Minister herself raising the issue with her Indian counterpart at the official talks instead of leaving such an important matter to the Foreign Secretary who ended by conveying an insult instead that the Indians eventually dismissed as an emotional outburst by a government not up to marks in conducting rudimentary diplomatic functions.
In fact, the Foreign Ministry was itself responsible for being caught as the cliché goes with its pants down. It failed to use its diplomatic posts in New Delhi and Kolkata in tracking the mood of the West Bengal Chief Minister who eventually emerged as the villain in aborting the Teesta deal. In New Delhi, it was known at least a few days before the Indian Prime Minister’s visit that New Delhi would not be in a position to sign the Teesta deal because of Mamata Banarjee. In fact, many knew from Kolkata press that the Indian National Security Adviser SS Menon had visited Kolkata before the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka to convince MB to agree to the Teesta deal.
The German FM’s visit was a very important one. Germany is the biggest European importer of Bangladesh’s RMG and a very important development partner. In fact, the German FM led a 57 member entourage that included mainly businessmen and investors. By all accounts, the visit promised a great deal of economic benefits to Bangladesh. These facts notwithstanding, the Foreign Ministry summoned the German CDA and expressed dissatisfaction that the German side issued a press statement in which critical views were expressed about Bangladesh’s domestic politics.
The Ministry’s contention detailed in a press statement that it issued after summoning the CDA was that none of the objectionable issues mentioned in the German statement and in the joint press briefing were discussed at the official meetings of the two FMs. The Ministry felt that the German FM should not have raised these issues at his joint press conference and such references should not have appeared in their statement released to the press because these were not raised or discussed in the official meeting between the two Foreign Ministers.
Interestingly, the German FM made all the points to which the MFA objected in the presence of the Bangladesh FM. All leading newspapers carried pictures of the two FMs at the joint press conference as well as reports on what was said at the press conference. Therefore the obvious question to ask would be why was the Bangladesh FM silent when the German FM expressed opinion on issues that were not discussed at the official meeting instead of waiting to call the CDA and register the Government’s objection afterwards! Equally important question to ask would be whether a visiting FM is restricted by diplomatic protocol or otherwise from mentioning in a press conference after official talks on issues not discussed at the official talks? What if the journalists ask him questions about issues not discussed at the meeting?
Obviously, these are questions that the MFA would not be able to answer. When India defaulted on the Teesta deal, the Prime Minister was very upset and it was a knee jerk reaction of his aides that includes her Advisers and the Foreign Minister to summon the Indian High Commissioner to deal with her anger. The German FM’s comments went against the Government and in favour of the opposition. Therefore it must have upset the Prime Minister and the decision to summon the CDA was another knee jerk reaction to deal with her sentiments. In recent times, Hilary Clinton made comments similar to what the German Minister said on a visit to Bangladesh. The US Ambassador was however not summoned to register Bangladesh’s displeasure. Perhaps for some unknown reason; the Prime Minister did not bother herself about her comments and therefore the Foreign Ministry was silent about her comments on human rights and internal politics of Bangladesh.
The summoning of envoys by the Foreign Ministry therefore reflects reactive diplomacy without any set guideline that does not do the country any good. In case of the German FM’s visit, Germany would not be very pleased that its CDA was summoned to lodge complaint against its Foreign Minister, particularly when the comments he made were made in a joint press conference with his Bangladeshi counterpart. In relations between states, issues upon which the German Minister made comments at the press conference are quite normal. The American leaders regularly do so when they are on visits abroad. Unlike diplomats who are prohibited from speaking on the internal affairs of their host countries under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, foreign dignitaries are under no such restrictions while on visits abroad.
In both cases, the Foreign Ministry used the diplomatic practice of summoning envoys in a manner that has embarrassed the Government. It was caught unprepared to face diplomatic situations that a minimum degree of professionalism should have prepared it to deal without having to summon the envoys of these two countries that raised serious questions on Bangladesh’s relations with these countries . It has also revealed that the Ministry is really not in charge of foreign affairs and is often required to provide knee jerk reactions to cover the mistakes of those who control foreign policy behind the scene.
The writer is former Ambassador to Japan.