9 February, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
Recently, I read a few articles on Peter Vergese, the new Australian Foreign Secretary in the Australian media. Two of the articles appeared in The Australian, one of the country’s leading newspapers. One article was headlined “Chief diplomat: nation needs bigger imprint”. Another in the same newspaper was captioned “Chief diplomat spells out the rules of engagement.” These articles reflected something that the reader did not miss; that in the conduct of Australia’s foreign policy, the Australian Foreign Secretary’s role is extremely crucial..
Peter Vergese s is a friend of mine from the “Class of 1979” of the Australian Foreign Service Training programme that he and I attended together. I felt proud at the way he is taking up his role to shape the foreign policy of his country as Australia’s “chief diplomat.” But then his confidence is nothing unusual. In Australian government, the Foreign Secretary’s pre-eminent role in foreign policy is a fact established by law. In contrast, I could not help feeling sad at the way we have allowed over the years to marginalize the “chief diplomat” of our country. At the same time as Peter Vergese took over his position in Canberra, our “chief diplomat” Shahidul Huq also took over the same responsibility in Bangladesh. Where does he stand in comparison to the Australian Foreign Secretary?
Our Foreign Secretary has not yet come into public view like his Australian counterpart. He has not made any public pronouncement of what role he intends to play as the “Chief diplomat” of Bangladesh. Hence, what role he will eventually play in the context of Bangladesh’s foreign policy is a subject upon which no prediction can yet be made with any certainty. I can only wish and perhaps pray for him that he would be play a role in the affairs of foreign policy as his counterparts play in other countries. The relevant rules concerning allocation of functions among the Ministries give the Foreign Secretary considerable influence over foreign policy. One wishes that the new Foreign Secretary would exercise these powers during his tenure.
Although Bangladesh was born in the war field, its birth was consolidated in the hard task of successful diplomacy. A fact that many have now forgotten is the opposition that Bangladesh faced in its struggle for freedom from the comity of nations during its struggle for independence in 1971. The era in which we fought our glorious war of liberation was one where in international relations; only lip service was provided to concepts that are now so much glorified such a people’s right of self determination or the importance of democracy and democratic elections. Bangladesh as the former East Pakistan had won a free and fair election that should have sent the AL to power in Islamabad and made Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Pakistan’s military rulers did not like the prospects. They declared the democratic elections void; banned AL and incarcerated the AL leader on charge of treason. They then embarked upon genocide to bring the people of Bangladesh into subservience by brute force.
The people of Bangladesh stood against the oppressors and fought one of the most glorious wars of liberation based on a people’s right of self determination. Yet except for India and the former Soviet Union, none of the members of the United Nations, themselves signatories to international documents protecting the right of self determination of a people came forward to assist Bangladesh’s war of liberation. In frustration, Dr. Henery Kissinger called Bangladesh “an international basket case” when it emerged as an independent nation against his and President Richard Nixon’s wishes and attempts to the contrary. Nations were afraid to support Bangladesh’s right of self determination overtly because they were afraid that supporting such a cause could encourage secessionist movements in their own countries.
Thus when Bangladesh became independent, its greatest challenge was to be recognized by the member states of the United Nations that had stood by silently during our war of liberation. It was a daunting task but Bangladesh achieved the recognition and respect of the countries of the world because Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the task in his hands and with the Foreign Ministry by his side, achieved recognition in very quick time to launch Bangladesh’s tryst with history as an independent and sovereign state. In this period of our history, the Foreign Secretary’s role was a major one. In fact, as Foreign Secretary, Enayet Karim was one of the closest and loved companions of the Prime Minister. Often, he would get together with the Foreign Secretary and senior officials of the Ministry and take foreign policy decisions that were crucial for the needs of a war ravaged country that he was trying to rebuild.
Enayet Karim died in office. His successor Fakhruddin Ahmed was allowed by the Prime Minister to work with him and the PMO in the same hand in glove approach and the results were more successes in foreign affairs. When President Ziaur Rahman became the President, he also gave the Foreign Ministry respect and he understood its importance in the affairs of the nation. In fact, Tobarak Hossain and SAMS Kibria both yielded considerable authority in formulating and implementing foreign policy because the President gave them the opportunity to play their rightful role in matters of foreign policy. SAMS Kibria went from his post as Foreign Secretary to become the Executive Director of ESCAP.
Enayet Karim, Fakhruddin Ahmed, Tobarak Hossain, SAMS Kibria were outstanding diplomats and built upon traditions inherited from British India where the Foreign Secretary was the only Secretary who had direct access to the Viceroy directly. Annada Sankar Roy writing in his well read book on the ICS, referred to the Foreign Secretary under the British Raj as a “koolin” among the Secretaries. In independent India under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Foreign Secretary’s position was also special among the central Secretaries of the Government. Indian Foreign Secretaries have moved to important position on retirement as has SS Menon who is now the powerful National Security Adviser. Pakistan also inherited the same tradition with the post of Foreign Secretary like India. In both the countries, the post of Foreign Secretary has been strengthened over the years.
In Bangladesh, the position of the Foreign Secretary started to decline under HM Ershad because he just did not like the professional diplomatic cadre. He systematically sidelined the Foreign Ministry and overtly encouraged other Secretaries to undermine the Foreign Secretary. He treated Fakhruddin Ahmed, whom he recalled home to become Foreign Secretary a second time unfairly and removed him abruptly on the excuse that he was seldom available over the Red Phone, a line of communication that he loved to use to keep the Secretaries on leash. Yet under even President Ershad, some of the Foreign Secretaries like Abul Ahsan, a topper in his CSS batch kept their heads high owing to their personal brilliance but knew that their power base was being systematically undermined with indulgence from the top against the Foreign Ministry.
The return of elected governments failed to bring the Foreign Ministry into reckoning in governance. The Foreign Secretaries after 1991 were extremely competent diplomats who could have done the nation much credit. Farooq Sobhan as a Deputy Permanent Representative in New York in the 1980s had chaired the important and powerful Group of 77. Yet as Foreign Secretary, he found that the rest of the government did not feel the need to benefit from his brilliance and kept him on the sidelines on issues of foreign affairs. Shafi Sami had proved his worth as High Commissioner to Pakistan and India as a diplomat of the highest standing. Yet as Foreign Secretary, he had to compete hard with his fellow Secretaries over foreign policy matters where he should, as the country’s “Chief Diplomat”, been allowed to lead.
It was only when Bangladesh and India came close to a war over border conflict in 2001 did the government realize the benefit and the need to depend on a career diplomat in times of a national crisis. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina publicly named the Foreign Secretary Syed Moazzem Ali as the Government’s spokesman and stated that no other Minister should speak on the subject and placed in his hands the major role of dealing with India. He did his job well and the nation benefited. Unfortunately, after Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury vacated the post of Foreign Secretary to become the Ambassador to Washington during the last BNP Government, the need to choose the best diplomat as Foreign Secretary based on merit cum seniority criterion principle was sacrificed.
The office of the Foreign Secretary has not been the same ever since. The present government having named a new Foreign Secretary should encourage him to once again become its “Chief Diplomat” in dealing with foreign policy, for that would serve its interests more than those of the new incumbent. On his part, the Foreign Secretary should make efforts to reclaim a lot of the legitimate powers and functions that are still his. He could start with the weekly press briefings to establish his visibility that his predecessors had used even during President Ershad’s times to good use when the latter all but wanted to close down the Foreign Ministry. He should set the MFA in order where important posts in the Ministry and its legally guaranteed functions are being lost to other cadres and other Ministries. The wish of the incumbent Foreign Secretary becoming our “Chief Diplomat” like his counterparts in Australia India and Pakistan and his predecessors in the 1980s is a fond one given the predicament in which the present incumbent finds himself. Nevertheless, this wish is one that would benefit the country and hence must be stressed for whatever it is worth.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affair Studies, CFAS