Friday, August 30, 2013

On the UN Secretary General’s phone calls


The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has given hope to the people of Bangladesh for a way out of an impending political disaster of grave consequences that many are apprehending would engulf Bangladesh if the two mainstream parties fail to reach an understanding over the issue of holding the next national elections. He made phone calls to Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia and urged both to start discussions over the political stalemate. 

The phone calls are not a new initiative. The UN Secretary General had earlier sent his Assistant Secretary for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Toranco to Dhaka in May to urge the two leaders to start talking for a way out of the nation’s problem over elections. He made his calls after that initiative did not produce any results and meantime, the two parties had pushed politics further towards the brink. In fact, just days before the calls, the two leaders had made the public statements that sent shock waves down the nation’s spine. The Prime Minister said she would not budge an inch from her party’s stand while the Leader of the Opposition said she would start a street movement that would blow the other away.

The Secretary General’s phone calls have raised hope because after these calls, the two parties are showing inclination for talks, albeit from their respective entrenched positions. As readers would recollect, the Prime Minister’s call for not budging an inch was followed by her Secretary General’s statement that there was no question anymore of talks with the opposition. There is now a shift from such a stand in the Awami League that is a positive sign. The BNP, after its decisive victories in the city corporation elections, would not need much encouragement for talks because it is hoping some power/s would intervene so that Bangladesh would have national elections in which it would be able to participate.

Ban Ki-moon’s initiative has been endorsed fully by Ambassadors/High Commissioners of Bangladesh’s development partners when they met the EC. Earlier, the Chinese Ambassador in what was a rare diplomatic initiative also urged the two mainstream parties on the same lines. Thus the countries that have a stake in Bangladesh have reached a consensus that Bangladesh must have free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” general elections where all political parties would participate to save the country from its current political crisis. Only India has not yet expressed its views on the international consensus.

Within the country, independent polls have suggested that up to 90% of the people also want that the next national elections to be participated by all political parties to save the country from sliding towards great political uncertainty. They share the fears of the BNP that the playing field would not be level if elections were held under party government from a few obvious facts. First, the civil and police administrations – key institutions for fair elections – have been totally politicized in favour of the ruling party. Second, the speeches and body language of the ruling party suggest that it does not intend to leave power. In fact, party leaders have stated in public that it would remain in power indefinitely under the 15th amendment if elections were not held!

The majority of the people also feel that the Election Commission is not strong and independent to hold elections freely, fairly and to the satisfaction of all the major political parties. A few things that the EC has done recently, particularly with relation to Article 91(E) of the RPO have further convinced the people that it would be unfair to expect the BNP to accept that the EC would be able to deliver national elections with a level playing field. They also have not forgotten that when the situation was less contentious in 1996, the AL had refused to take part in the same type of elections that it is now asking the BNP to participate. The Secretary General’s initiative has come at a very opportune and critical time for Bangladesh. His task would be to encourage the AL and the BNP to come to understanding where both would be able to take part in the next general elections. 

He would need to develop a framework without which his initiative would not succeed. In developing that framework, he would need to consider that the BNP is literally standing on its two feet to participate in national elections where it would need guarantees of a level playing ground to overcome its fears. The SG would need to determine whether these fears are justified and in that context, focus on what the people outside the inner circles of the two parties, think and feel. 

He would also need to consult the views of important member countries, particularly those who have a stake in which way the politics of Bangladesh goes, particularly the USA, China and most importantly India. Of course, he would also need to consider whether the ruling party’s contention that holding elections under 15th amendment of the Constitution that it drafted and passed with its 3/4th majority without due process of consultation is good enough reason to take the country to general elections without the opposition that everybody in Bangladesh except those in the ruling party feel would be a prescription of disaster for the country.

The Secretary General has leverage that in Bangladesh’s current politics no other country has to influence/encourage the present rulers of the country to see views not aligned to its own. Bangladesh has emerged as a major contributor to UN peacekeeping operations that in turn has emerged as a key factor in Bangladesh’s domestic politics because the armed forces have tremendous real and imagined power to influence the country’s politics. In the last days of the last BNP Government and first few days of the CTG, the peacekeeping issue was used by the Generals then in charge of armed forces to force President Yazuddin to declare emergency and impose their own agenda on the country that forced Bangladesh decades back in its development efforts.

The Secretary General could keep that in mind and use the leverage positively. The UN does not simply have responsibility to help countries regain peace after it has been destroyed. It has pre-emptive responsibility to save a country from going the way where peace would become casualty. He could use this line of thinking to convey to the ruling party that it would not be logical for the UN to seek peacekeepers from Bangladesh where there was no peace in its own country. Bangladesh in its present predicament could be a classic case where the UN could play such a role. Further, the UN has leverage with a host of other issues where the Bangladesh Government would want to listen to the UN. The area of climate change for instance is one.

The UN Secretary General does not take initiatives like the one in Bangladesh without discussion/consultation with member countries that have a stake in the country.  Therefore he must have consulted India with others before his phone calls. He would need to enhance this contact with India in the days ahead because India holds the key to whether the ruling party would agree to hold elections where the BNP would be able to participate. In fact, India alone more than all the other countries put together could ensure whether the Secretary General would succeed or fail with his Bangladesh initiative.

Ban Ki-moon may have walked into history with his phone calls. He would now need to ensure that the calls are the beginning of a determined involvement with Bangladesh in its present crisis. The whole of Bangladesh would like to wish him success in his peacekeeping mission in Bangladesh. Should he succeed, he would be able to prove that his role and his office are worth a whole bundle of UN peacekeeping missions involving thousands of international peacekeepers and worth hundreds of millions of US dollars.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador


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