There have been numerous instances in Bangladesh when diplomats, especially from the UK, the US, and the European Union, have voiced their opinions openly about the fairness of elections, or the democratic functioning of the government, which in no way falls under the purview of conventional diplomacy.
The 12th national parliamentary elections in Bangladesh are drawing near, and the election wind has started to blow in Dhaka. Political parties have already begun to plan their voting strategy through a variety of events. However, this time, the diplomatic community in Dhaka has suddenly become active.
A number of Western ambassadors frequently meet with government departments, political party representatives, the Election Commission (EC), and members of civil society in Dhaka. At numerous forums, they discuss upcoming election management, fairness, and impartiality— issues that are unquestionably domestic to Bangladesh and in no way fall under the purview of diplomacy. Foreign diplomats have also made public remarks on these subjects to the media.
After a bloody Liberation War, Bangladesh attained independence in 1971 but struggled to establish robust democratic foundations. The nation's efforts to establish itself as a stable democracy were hampered by numerous political setbacks and military coups over the course of its more than 50 years of independence.
Four years after Bangladesh gained independence, its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated, creating a political crisis for the young nation. The struggle for control between various groups in the years that followed prompted foreign diplomats to meddle openly or covertly in the domestic affairs of the nation. It cannot be said that such interventions are over, even though perceptions about it have significantly changed.
Mediation or meddling
Bangladesh has a history of using foreign ambassadors to mediate in political crises due to the country's political divisions. Major political parties frequently complain to foreign embassies about their internal problems, whether they are in or out of power.
Bangladesh is heavily reliant on financial assistance from its development partners. This connection occasionally compels the nation to accept conditions on matters of democracy and governance. Additionally, under the guise of aid diplomacy, some countries are interfering in the domestic affairs of developing nations. Additionally, they attempt to advance their foreign policy goals, such as maintaining US hegemony and Western centrism, by interfering in the internal affairs of developing nations using democracy and human rights as tools.
Beyond the bounds of etiquette
The goal of diplomacy is to build and diversify relationships, promote collaboration, trade, and investment, and prevent confrontations, that ultimately benefit both nations. In order to navigate an ever-expanding list of global issues like the economic crisis, climate change, pandemics, transnational terrorism, and the arms race that prove fatal if left unresolved, effective and skillful multinational diplomacy is essential.
Although winning the hearts and minds of the local community is also a foreign diplomat's responsibility, there is regretfully a growing trend for diplomats to abuse their position. There have been numerous instances in Bangladesh when diplomats, especially from the UK, the US, and the European Union, have voiced their opinions openly about the fairness of elections, or the democratic functioning of the government, which in no way falls under the purview of conventional diplomacy.
Ambassadorial intervention in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state is in no way justified, despite the fact that the goal may be thought to be honourable. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, Article 41 paragraph 1, expressly prohibits diplomats from interfering in the internal affairs of the host state and reminds them to follow its laws and regulations.
They are interested in making investments in Bangladesh because of the friendly business climate and strong democratic system. They may therefore worry about political unrest connected to the elections. However, it is offensive and bizarre to use investments as a cover to sway Bangladesh's internal matters.
As long as they don't go beyond the bounds of diplomatic etiquette, friendly countries, development partners, or leaders of various international organizations (of which Bangladesh is a member) are welcome to offer their advice and opinion on various important issues.
Foreign diplomats cannot dictate
It is for the people and the political parties of the nation to decide how the Election Commission will operate or how elections will be held, because these are domestic matters. Foreign governments and organizations are not allowed to dictate how a sovereign country like Bangladesh should run its politics.
In any democratic nation, an ambassador can without a doubt visit the highest levels of government, meet the leaders of opposing parties, or speak with civil society to further his or her government's agenda. However, when they meet with them to discuss a domestic political issue in the host nation, it is wrong and undiplomatic.
It's not necessarily a negative thing for ambassadors to offer constructive criticism. However, such criticism must be delivered to their hosts subtly and not before the media.
Bangladeshi government critics claim that the country's declining democratic credentials jeopardize the democratic values upon which it was founded. However, foreign diplomats interfering in Dhaka's political problems produce the perception that the country's political system is being controlled by external forces rather than functioning on its own to address its own political concerns. It suggests that foreign diplomats will decide how Bangladeshi politics will now move forward.
The debate surrounding alleged Russian meddling in the US presidential election is proof that the US does not allow outside meddling in its national elections. Following allegations of "Russian government-directed attempts to influence the 2020 US presidential election," which Moscow vehemently denied, President Joe Biden announced penalties on a number of Russian people and organizations in 2021 and expelled 10 Russian diplomats.
Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats are protected from legal action by the host nation, but this does not give them the license to meddle in a nation's domestic issues. Despite the Vienna Convention, no proud nation will let foreign ambassadors openly criticize its politics or system of government.
Diplomatic missions in Bangladesh should remember that democracy is a universal value but that no nation has the right to lecture others about it. Political parties shouldn't aid the unpleasant actions of foreign ambassadors to gain an advantage over their opponents on the political stage. They should keep in mind the Chinese proverb, which reads, "The same water that floats a boat can also sink it," meaning that people (water) can both propel a boat and bring it to down as well.
(The author is a security and strategic affairs analyst in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Views are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)