Recently General Secretary of Bangladesh Awami League and Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader MP reacted sharply to some comments from the US Ambassador Mercia Bernicat on the propriety of the Gazipur City Corporation election, arguing that her remarks have the potential to strain the friendly relations between the two countries. He also added that Bangladesh never comments on the internal affairs of any country and expects the same from others.
Minister Quader is absolutely right as regards Bangladesh not commenting on the ‘internal affairs’ of other countries. For instance, I am quite certain that the Bangladesh Ambassador in Washington has not made any comments on the ongoing Robert Mueller investigation into alleged Russian influence in the last US Presidential election. While Bangladesh continues to play one of the largest humanitarian roles in the world by sheltering around a million forcibly displaced Rohingyas, I have not heard it make any comments on the current US administration’s border policy, a matter of heated debate not only in the US, but abroad too.
This brings us to the question of whether some diplomats are more equal than others. The answer to which depends on whether some of the ambassadors here are indeed, through their comments, encroaching upon the ‘internal affairs’ of Bangladesh. The starting point in this regard is Article 41.1 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), 1961 that reads:
“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”.
As to what is exactly meant by ‘interfering in the internal affairs’ of any given state, the VCDR 1961 is silent. However, by drawing references to such cases of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as the Asylum Case (Colombia V Peru)  and the Case Concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staffs in Iran (197), Kenneth K Mwenda (2011) highlights some situations which might be applicable in this regard:
“… One could reasonably impute that such actions by diplomatic agents as funding an opposition political party in a host state, harbouring or supporting terrorists attacking that host state, or exciting political discord or dissent in the host state, could well be seen as interfering in the internal affairs of the said state…” [Public International Law, page 62].
The above enunciation makes it plausible that many of the comments from the diplomats stationed in Bangladesh as well as representatives of international and lending organisations, may fall foul of Art. 41(1) of the VCDR. The recent comments from the US Ambassador is simply the latest in a long line of comments made by ambassadors in Bangladesh on such issues as elections, human rights, political parties and even proposed legislation. For instance, there are very few places in the world where diplomats would feel entitled enough to comment upon, and even dictate, the terms of a proposed legislation, such as their current preoccupation with the Digital Security Act.
The argument that is raised by some in this regard is that the diplomats have the best interests of Bangladesh in mind when making such comments. This argument falls flat when one takes into account how many such countries did not always stand by Bangladesh at its times of utmost need.
The argument also sounds hollow when one looks closely at some of the major examples from recent years, including but not limited to, the Padma Bridge (manufactured) controversy, the war crimes trials, and the not-so-distant 1/11 era where not only the principle of non-interference, but even the principle of non-intervention may have been breached by some diplomats stationed in Bangladesh.
It is now public knowledge that the government of Bangladesh, and especially Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, had to resist a lot of pressure between 2010 and 2014 from some diplomats in fulfilling her election pledge of holding the trials of those alleged to have committed international crimes during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. In the guise of commenting on the fairness of the process, even John Kerry, the erstwhile top diplomat of the US wanted the prime minister of Bangladesh to refrain from carrying out verdicts confirmed by the highest court of the land. Fortunately for justice seekers in Bangladesh, the prime minister rightly did not bow down to the undue pressure and the process saw its inevitable conclusion.
Without having any credible evidence of corruption, the World Bank in 2012 decided to withdraw funding from one of the largest infrastructural undertakings of Bangladesh, the Padma Bridge. The government was vindicated last year when a Canadian court ruled that no such evidence of corruption actually exists. Some of the diplomats back then, without actually caring for a due process and the impact it would have on the people of Bangladesh, joined the bandwagon of lecturing Bangladesh on corruption and lack of governance. Here too, fortunately, the steadfastness of the prime minister prevailed, and now with 56 percent of the Padma Bridge complete, and the stigma of corruption laundered, the lives of 30 million people living in Bangladesh’s southeast stand to be transformed for the better.
The role of some top diplomats in the 1/11 saga was even more conspicuous, with the role of some of the top Western and UN diplomats now notoriously well known. I would go on to say that their role in that period may have gone beyond interference to the realm of intervention. Article 2.4 of the UN Charter states:
“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
The principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of States also signifies that a State should not otherwise intervene in a dictatorial way in the internal affairs of other States. The ICJ in the Nicaragua Case referred to “the element of coercion, which defines, and indeed forms the very essence of, prohibited intervention” (ICJ Reports 1986, page 108, para 205). Multiple accounts from that time confirm that the element of dictatorial coercion was indeed present from some diplomats who threatened that Bangladesh’s peacekeeping opportunities would be in jeopardy if the army did not step in and assume state power and ultimately implement the infamous ‘reform’ and ‘minus two’ programmes prescribed by them and their local cohorts in media and civil society. Some of the top army brass was more than happy to comply back then. Whatever name you might choose to give it, it was, in effect, a coup d’etat, by stealth.
There is also a lot of justifiable speculation about the role played by certain diplomats and foreign governments in the August 1975 massacre of the Father of the Nation and almost his entire family. Some of the most powerful countries in the world have a terrible track record of manufacturing regime change, implementing democracy projects, and in the process often destroying entire nations. This is common knowledge from South America, to Africa to the Middle East. No wonder there is an old joke in diplomacy which goes something like this: “Why has there never been a coup in Washington?…Because there is no US embassy there…”
It appears from numerous examples from South America to Africa to Asia that particularly developing countries are vulnerable to the constant risk of being interfered with in their internal affairs by ‘donor’ countries, who perhaps feel that since they have ‘donated’, they must have ‘bought’ some stake in the affairs of that state. But it has to acknowledged now by diplomats that Bangladesh is no longer an aid-dependent country. It is a country where grants are increasingly being replaced by loans.
A country at the verge of being a developing one from a least developed one and aspiring to be a developed one. A country where the majority fall within the bracket of lower-middle income category and which does not shy away from being a major global player including in humanitarian issues. This new Bangladesh, with its new found confidence in itself and its people, does not take well to unsolicited advice. This Bangladesh believes in partnership and not assistance, cooperation and not diktats.
This new Bangladesh still has a long way to go in terms of fulfilling all its development aspirations, including in areas such as human rights. But these aspirations, especially those falling within the realm of human rights, cannot be an excuse for a new form of global hegemony. These priorities would, as with its previous development targets, need to be addressed by the partnership of the national government, non-government organisations, the private sector, the media and all other stakeholders including foreign partners and friends.
But for the latter to be engaged constructively, there needs to be a recognition that Bangladesh stands as their equal. And if diplomats have some tough questions for Bangladesh, they should not be surprised and/or offended if Bangladesh has some questions for them too.