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Bangladesh Foreign Office needs changes at the top

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should seriously mull the idea of shaking the Foreign Office out of the lethargy and stupor it has fallen into. Why not have a scholar well-versed in global diplomacy take charge? writes Syed Badrul Ahsan for South Asia Monitor

Aug 2, 2017
By Syed Badrul Ahsan
 
There is clear need for change at the top in the foreign policy establishment in Bangladesh. The country needs a new Foreign Minister and a new Foreign Secretary. Both the requisite qualities, of dynamism and intellectual activism, have been missing from the diplomatic establishment at Shegun Bagicha for a long time.
 
The immediate reason why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is in serious need of new leadership has to do with what the Anti-Corruption Commission has been doing about questionable goings-on within the ministry’s precincts. A few months ago, the nation was told that the ACC was investigating allegations of corruption, irregularities and abuse of power at various Bangladesh diplomatic missions abroad. More recently, we were informed of another crucial step the ACC has taken towards pulling up the Foreign Ministry, on the question of the money the ministry owes the government, or, more specifically, the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Passport and visa processing fees collected at 65 missions, valued at a whopping Tk. 3,786 crore have not been accounted for by the MFA. The ACC has formed a committee to probe the whereabouts of the missing money. The Foreign Ministry owes the Home Ministry a huge Tk. 1,586 crore for hand-written passports delivered between 2000 and 2016. The Home Ministry also has to receive from the MFA Tk. 2,052 crore for 30 lakh machine-readable passports delivered between 2010 and 2016.
 
The MFA has issued no statement on the steps the ACC has taken. Absolute silence, quite a regular feature at the nation’s diplomatic establishment, has descended on these revelations.
In recent months, embarrassing details have emerged about the behaviour of some Bangladeshi diplomats abroad, particularly in New York and Los Angeles. The man at the consulate in New York, taken into custody by the police there and subsequently freed on bail, has now been moved to the Bangladesh mission at the United Nations. That was an unwise and unethical step. There has been no explanation from the Foreign Office on what steps it has taken to discipline such diplomats.
 
Not long ago, an ambassador in a European country had to be recalled under pressure from the host government. He was soon sent off on a new assignment, to a Central Asian nation. Where was the discipline? A high commissioner in London was compelled to leave under a cloud. But he was not asked to return to Dhaka. He was sent to Brazil.
 
Diplomacy consistently calls for intellectual vibrancy and administrative innovation. These are ideas that have become non-existent at the Foreign Office. There is theoretically an External Publicity Wing at the MFA. The reality is quite different, for the department stays silent and in the bushes. No media briefings come from it; nothing of critical importance appears to be its concern. Strangely enough, it has been the Foreign Minister who has regularly gone before the media, to brief them on matters having to do with Bangladesh’s relations with the outside world.
Ministers are not spokespersons for the offices over which they preside. At the MFA, there is an External Publicity Wing to do the job. Or there is a designated spokesperson, a career diplomat --- as in Delhi and Islamabad --- to articulate a nation’s foreign policy positions. That spokesperson is not there at the Foreign Office in Dhaka.
 
What there is before you is a diplomatic establishment atrophying into irrelevance. The Foreign Office, through all these months of mounting trouble with Myanmar over the Rohingyas, has been unable to formulate a policy towards engaging Yangon on the issue. An exercise of smart diplomacy would have produced results. That has not happened.
 
The policy toward Pakistan ought to have been firm and principled, in line with the ideals that led us to victory over Islamabad on the battlefield forty six years ago. Apart from mouthing platitudes, there has been no forceful articulation of Bangladesh’s position on the issue of pre-1971 assets and liabilities before the Pakistan government. Hardly any effort has been made toward compelling the Islamabad authorities into initiating Foreign Secretary-level talks aimed at resolution of the outstanding issues between the two countries.
 
In West Asia, we have no foreign policy that can advance Bangladesh’s cause. Expressing solidarity with the Ummah is hardly any way for Bangladesh to uphold its interests in the region, given the innumerable complaints of ill-treatment from poor Bangladeshis. The Foreign Office has singularly been unable to adopt a position on the crisis involving Qatar and its neighbours. It has had little coherent comment on the fraught ties between the Iranians and the Saudis.
 
The Foreign Ministry embarrassed us over the abortive SAARC summit in Islamabad. It was unable to make up its mind on how to approach the summit in the Pakistani capital until the Indian government decided that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not be going to Islamabad owing to the Pakistan government’s failure to curb terror attacks against Delhi. It was only then that we in Dhaka were told that Bangladesh too had decided to boycott the summit because of Pakistan’s blatant interference in the war crimes trials. The reason was perfect, but the act of deciding to stay away from the summit came rather late. Why couldn’t the Foreign Office decide that Bangladesh needed to pull out of the summit for reasons of its own before the Indian government made its move? It was not a shining moment for Bangladesh.
 
The Foreign Office has not explained why a diplomat had recently to be removed from Kolkata. Neither has it explained why the diplomat, instead of being grounded at home, was sent off to another foreign posting.
 
In Bangladesh’s history, the Foreign Ministry has functioned well with non-diplomats at the top conducting its affairs. Dr. Kamal Hossain, Professor Shamsul Haq and Anisul Islam Mahmud are a few of the enterprising men who have served as foreign ministers. At the level of minister of state, Abul Hasan Chowdhury was a refreshing presence in the Foreign Office in the first administration led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Currently, the young and dynamic Shahriar Alam is symbolic of what needs to be done to power the nation’s diplomacy into dimensions that call for an intellectual as opposed to a bureaucratic approach to Bangladesh’s role across the globe.
 
Bangladesh’s Foreign Office is in need of change, in need of a thorough recast. Diplomacy requires men and women of vision, people who can speak their minds in the corridors of power even at risk of losing office. A nation’s foreign policy establishment is not and should not be the place where integrity and ethics are brought into question.
 
One wonders if the parliamentary standing committee on the MFA will now move to question, in the larger national interest, the individuals on whose watch these and other anomalies have come to light.
 
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should seriously mull the idea of shaking the Foreign Office out of the lethargy and stupor it has fallen into. Why not have a scholar well-versed in global diplomacy take charge? Why not bring home one of the many brilliant diplomats serving at our missions abroad and have him or her assume a new role as Foreign Secretary?
 
(Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist in Bangladesh. He can be contacted at ahsan.syedbadrul@gmail.com)

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