M. Serajul Islam
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, while briefing the heads of diplomatic missions in Dhaka on October 30th on the political situation in Bangladesh, reminded them that they must follow diplomatic norms while on their tour of duty in the country. What the Foreign Minister said in the briefing held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not anything new. The norm the Foreign Minister was referring to have been scribed in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations under which countries conduct their diplomatic relations with each other worldwide.
The Vienna Convention was adopted in 1961. “The Convention codifies the rules for the exchange and treatment of envoys between states, which have been firmly established in customary law for hundreds of years”. It has become an almost universally adopted Convention with 179 states party to it. Countries that have signed this Convention, and all independent states have, use it to conduct their diplomatic relations so that their diplomats are ensured that they can carry their duties without threat or influence in the host country. The Convention thus grants diplomats and diplomatic missions special privileges and immunities in a host country. Such privileges and immunities are granted by the host country in return for certain norms that diplomats are required to follow.
The Vienna Convention is not a large document. It has only 54 Articles. Nevertheless, it details the way countries establish diplomatic missions in each other’s counties, exchange diplomats, their rights and responsibilities; etc, etc. Article 41 of the Convention that is relevant to this article about norms diplomats must follow in the host country for the privileges and immunities they are given by the host country, reads as follows:
- “Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.
- All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed. “
The paragraphs could not have been spelt in any manner more precise and more unambiguous. In the first sentence of Article 41 (1), diplomats are advised to respect the laws and regulations of the host country. There is a misconception in the public domain that as diplomats enjoys diplomatic immunity; they can act pretty much as they want in the host country. The sentence therefore states, to remove this confusion, that while in the host country, it is the duty of diplomats not to be disrespectful of their laws and regulations. Article 41(1) clearly links diplomatic immunity and privileges to the conduct of diplomats in the host country.
The second sentence of Article 41(1) completes the spirit of the Article. It forbids diplomats from interfering in the internal affairs of the host country. In fact, the sentence on this prohibition has been made sufficiently strong because it has mentioned the requirement that diplomats must not interfere in internal affairs of the host country in anyway as their duty. Article 41(2) is even more interesting and pertinent in the context of the advise of the Bangladesh Foreign Minister to the foreign envoys that they must follow norms while conducting their affairs in Bangladesh. This sub-para makes the Foreign Ministry the contact point between the foreign missions/diplomats and the host government.
This provision, Article 41(2), states unambiguously that foreign missions must make the Foreign Ministry their main contact point for communicating with the host government. Thus diplomats/diplomatic missions are advised not to contact any other government ministry, agency, and department directly for their work in the host country. However, if the receiving and the sending states agree, the diplomats from the sending country may contact other Ministries/Departments/agencies in the receiving country. Nevertheless, the spirit of Article 41(2) is clear in interpretation. The diplomats of the sending country must keep the host country’s Foreign Ministry on the loop when they contact other Ministries/agencies/departments in the receiving country on the subject of such contacts.
In Bangladesh these days, while there are so many things that are happening in politics that may not be considered positive, one development that is unambiguously positive is the revolution in information. We know almost instantly anything and everything that is happening in our public life; in politics, economics, and society. The mushroom growth of newspapers/private TV channels and the Internet have allowed us to know things that happen in our public life almost the instant they happen. Therefore, we know that foreign Ambassadors/High Commissioners are active in our politics, sometimes more active than our politicians. They have a view on almost all aspects of our country and not at all shy in expressing it. The way they act leaves little doubt that either they have not heard of the Vienna Convention or if they have, they are not concerned about violating it.
Thus foreign envoys in Bangladesh call press conferences – like politicians -to tell the government and the political parties what they should do. They could not care less that by making such statements, they often cross the limits of simple decency like when they accuse the government as corrupt. The diplomats have not suddenly started their indulgence in our internal affairs. It is the country’s devastation during the war of liberation and the aid that Bangladesh’s development partners provided to rebuild a devastated Bangladesh that was used as the excuse by the Ambassadors/High Commissioners to act as Viceroys of our colonial days to become our self-appointed “guardians.”
Subsequently, it has been the politics of conflict in the country that encouraged these High Commissioners and Ambassadors to institutionalize their role in our politics. As the ruling party became more and more interested to remain in power at any cost, it was the opposition that was largely responsible for giving the diplomats a dominant role in our politics. Aware that the aid card was a vital one, the opposition went to the envoys of the country’s development partners to put pressure on the government to relent on their demands. The envoys that the opposition contacted were encouraged by their capitals to respond because they wanted their aid to be utilized properly. Of course, these diplomats relished their roles in our politics as such roles gave them access to political leaders, like the President, the Prime Minister, Ministers, etc, that they would not have met in any other capital and that too to tell them what to do. They enjoyed the limelight.
The cold war politics was also another reason that paved the way for diplomats to eventually become our political guardians. It was the western powers that stood behind the regime of President HM Ershad the entire decade of the 80s that he was in office. In fact, during his time, it was the government that brought the diplomats to our politics and not the other way round. During the entire period of President Ershad, the foreign diplomats, particularly those from the United States, the Middle East; Pakistan and Iraq could very well get their ways on any issue they wanted with the Foreign Ministry in total darkness. President Ershad had this weakness for golf and there were many Ambassadors whose countries did not give Bangladesh a cent in aid but yet could dictate the Foreign Ministry because they were “golf buddies” of the President. With the fall of President Ershad, the diplomats did not lose any of their influence that he had largely helped institutionalize. The opposition came to their “rescue” and more than compensated.
Therefore while the Foreign Minister’s call to the diplomats to act according to norms was the right advice, she would need to consider her party’s role in the past in interacting and encouraging these diplomats to be involved in our politics. In fact, the role that the Ambassadors and High Commissioners played during the 2001-2006 BNP tenure and during the tenure of the 2007-2008 caretaker government should be the subject of research study of researchers in the Universities who deal with issues of diplomacy and conduct of diplomatic relations. During the BNP’s last term, an informal group of envoys of the developed countries, the Tuesday Club, had initiated an international conference in Dhaka to embarrass the government that eventually fell through because one of the members of the Club refused to go along.
At times during that period, the High Commissioners/Ambassadors appeared as if they were the opposition. The generally accepted view in Bangladesh is that the 2007 emergency in Bangladesh that many in the country accepted had pushed Bangladesh back by at least two decades in terms of its development was the fruit of the efforts of a few diplomats and UN officials. This group acting in tandem “manufactured” a fax message from the UN headquarters in New York where it was stated that if the military assisted the BNP Government to hold one-party elections that the BNP wanted, the UN would stop taking pace keepers from Bangladesh. The fax when produced by General Moyeen in his historic encounter with President Yazuddin worked like magic with the latter signing the proclamation of emergency without a whimper.
The BNP in its role as opposition in 1996-2001 and under the present term of the Awami League has given the diplomats access to our politics. However, meanwhile there has been a paradigm shift in the way the diplomats have been accustomed to interfere in the country’s politics. In her present term, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has distanced herself from the Ambassadors/High Commissioners. Their access to her at will is no longer the norm at the PMO. Ambassadors/High Commissioners are now allowed to meet the Prime Minister as determined by protocol, namely upon assuming their posts or when leaving. Otherwise, these diplomats are allowed to meet the Prime Minister on a case-by-case basis where the PMO determines the appointments.
This change made at the PMO is no doubt the correct one. It should have been done long before because the honour and dignity of the country demanded it. The people of the country have silently faced humiliations, as envoys met our top government leaders at will and embarrassed them, including the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, while the PMO has set the right path, Ministers have not taken the cue. They have courted these diplomats and continue to do so for personal reasons. In fact, a recent news item carried by leading Dhaka English daily has stated that the Foreign Minister has become the subject of annoyance of many Embassies because of the frequent requests they receive from her office for grant of visas! The diplomats also received encouragement in meddling in our internal affairs from our civil society; business organizations and the media. Envoys wherever they serve seek and get forums to speak of their countries and on relations with the host countries. Dhaka is perhaps the only country where envoys are invited by media/civil society and business organizations to speak on our politics!
Thus the FM’s call to the diplomats alone would not serve any purpose unless with the government, the opposition, the civil society, the business groups, the media all think the way the Foreign Minister has. Unfortunately, even the Foreign Minister’s way of reminding the diplomats about their duties under the Vienna Convention was not the correct way although the reason to do so was undoubtedly the right decision. In her meeting, the envoys were shown videos and photographs to discredit the opposition. She portrayed the BNP/Jamat as terrorists/fundamentalists to encourage them to support the government over its decision to hold elections in the country under the Interim Government. Therefore, she did not draw the line and direct the envoys to adhere to the Vienna Convention but encouraged them to look at the country’s domestic politics the government’s way.
The supporters of the ruling party in the media have accused the US Ambassador Dam Mozena in the present politics as pro-BNP. In 2006-2008, the British High Commissioner was accused by the BNP, as being pro-AL. Therein is the problem. As long as the ruling party and the opposition do not get over their mindless politics of conflict for political power, the envoys will continue to have the ground made for them to continue to play their political roles in our politics, the Vienna Convention notwithstanding. Now that the Foreign Minister has underlined that the envoys must follow diplomatic norms, albeit in a biased manner, perhaps the civil society, business groups, the media and business institutions that are not playing the power game or politics would stop allowing the envoy forums to humiliate Bangladesh and its people.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador, Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies and member, The Dhaka Forum