Sunday, August 5, 2012

On US Ambassador’s timely warnings
"As I See It"
The Independent
August 4th., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The US Ambassador Dan Mozena is becoming increasingly vocal in the context of Bangladesh’s domestic politics. He has recently made comments on Bangladesh’s RMG sector on a visit to the office of local daily that seems to have displeased the government He said that a “perfect storm” is gathering in the horizon that could sweep Bangladesh’s successful RMG sector off its feet and land it in deep trouble.  He said that the huge out flow of RMG business from China due to the increase of labour and other costs there could easily come to Bangladesh. Unfortunately, not only would the Chinese business not come to Dhaka; even the US buyers could leave the country due to Bangladesh’s failure at address human rights and labour issues related to the RMG sector. 

The US Ambassador is unlike most of his fellow Ambassadors in Dhaka in his comments on Bangladesh.  He speaks about Bangladesh as a well wisher of the country where most of his fellow Ambassadors express views about the country in a manner that are sometimes offensive. He belongs to a group of foreign diplomats who see the country beyond the conflict prone politics and love it for its people; its strong cultural base and its potentials, etc.  He was in Bangladesh before as a political officer at the US Embassy before returning as his country’s Ambassador. 

That Ambassador Dan Mozena is a true friend of Bangladesh was more than evident when he spoke in Washington recently in the Heritage Foundation on Bangladesh. In an hour long presentation that was titled “USA-Bangladesh: A Promising Partnership”, the Ambassador touched upon  a wide array of areas  in Bangladesh-US bilateral relations such as his country’s support for human rights, democracy, security, and disaster management. He praised the policies of the government that have placed Bangladesh on road to becoming a middle income country within the next decade. 

 He spoke optimistically of the potentials of Bangladesh. He also underlined the importance of holding the next elections in a free and fair manner where the opposition would participate to ensure realization of these potentials. In fact, he said that he had the feeling that the ruling party and the opposition are already in contact over finding a way out of the impasse over the system under which the next elections would be held.  

Therefore, it would be a mistake for the Government to take umbrage with what Ambassador Mozena has said about the RMG sector in his meeting in the office of the English daily or the views he is expressing regularly these days on Bangladesh in other forums. The fear of the “perfect storm” over the RMG sector is not something that Ambassador Mozena has imagined. Just very recently, 19 brand name buyers of Bangladeshi RMG products gathered in Dhaka and sent a SOS to the Prime Minister to convey their deep concerns about the continuing unrest in the RMG sector. Among the 19 buyers were the hugely important ones, Wal-Mart, JC Penny and Gap. They were also deeply concerned about the condition of labour welfare in the RMG sector. 

In fact what Ambassador Dan Mozena articulated in his meeting at the office of the Dhaka daily was not something that should have come as a surprise to the Government. Not too long ago, the RMG sector had a very close brush with real disaster when over 300 RMG factories were shut down over labour unrest in Ashulia. The government can sidetrack the concerns expressed by the 19 importers and the labour unrest in Ashulia last month and those flagged by the Ambassador only at the peril of the RMG sector.                                                                           

Therefore, the Government would do itself and the country a great service if it looked at the points made by Ambassador Mozena while visiting the English daily and at other forums seriously instead of expressing displeasure over what he said. He raised four issues that he thought joined together to create the “perfect storm.” Of these, he named the death of the labour leader Aminul Islam who worked for the Bangladesh Center for Labour Solidarity that is affiliated to the very powerful ALF-CIO of the United States as the first major concern. He named the petition of the AFL-CIO lodged with the US Government against Bangladesh receiving privileges duty free access under GSP while at the same time failing to meet the necessary labour standards as another reason for the storm facing the Bangladesh RMG sector. The petition has been pending since 2007. The third reason for the pending storm according to the Ambassador is the failure of Bangladesh to sign the Ticfa. The Americans have been interested that Bangladesh’s signs this Ticfa agreement for quite some time without success. 

The AFL-CIO is an extremely powerful labour group in the United States. Aminul Islam was a member of an organization affiliated with it. Therefore the investigations of his murder needed to be transparent and satisfactory to the group. In fact, since his disappearance and death in April, 11 human rights group in USA wrote to the Prime Minister seeking a comprehensive and impartial investigation that has not come. Likewise, the AFL-CIO’s concern on labour conditions in the RMG sector tabled by it with the US government has also not been handled seriously and is still pending. It seems like the government is not fully aware of the power and influence of this group in the United States. 

The attitude of self-righteousness and underscoring that in the media were the major mistakes that this government made with the WB and incurring the displeasure of the US State department over Dr. Yunus that has cost Bangladesh a great deal in the context of its national interests.  It fact, this self-righteousness in its handing with its international partners has been so far a fundamental problem of this government in foreign relations. The AFL-CIO may not have the patience of the WB or the US Department of State and could very well pressure its Government and succeed over the GSP issue against Bangladesh. The US Government itself also has no reason to be patient with this Government. 

Dan Mozena has also said in the media that good relations with the USA is necessary for its government to be soft on Bangladesh’s needs on RMG exports to USA no doubt alluding to this government’s rather ill-advised row with the US Government over Dr. Mohammad Yunus. It is advisable that the Bangladesh Government would stop using the media as a strategy for is diplomatic negotiations. Unfortunately, the Foreign Secretary has already gone to the media stating that Ticfa has been delayed due to the US side. The Minister for Expat Affairs has also answered the criticisms of the Ambassador on the RMG sector in the media defending the government’s position in the usual self-righteousness manner. 

It would also be in the interest of the Government to pay heed to the other major issue that the Ambassador raised, namely that of holding elections in a manner that would be acceptable to all and make it fair and credible. It is interesting that in Bangladesh, the political parties go to the Ambassadors of the developed countries while in the opposition for support against the Government. The same party in power shuns these Ambassadors and looks upon them as opposition activists. What these parties fail to see is that when they shun these Ambassadors while in power, it is they who pay the price and ensure they lose power. That is the well established pattern.  

All the above notwithstanding, the Government could still have an issue with the US and his fellow Ambassadors in Dhaka but in a different context. The Ambassadors are still in violation of diplomatic norms that make it incumbent upon them not to interfere in the domestic politics of their host countries. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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