Tuesday, 7 February, 2023

Out Of The Box

Foreign Interference and Diplomatic Etiquette

Dr. Rashid Askari

Foreign Interference and Diplomatic Etiquette
Dr. Rashid Askari

A political storm is brewing over Japanese Ambassador, Ito Naoki’s recent remarks about Bangladesh’s 2018 parliamentary elections and the role of police in the alleged vote rigging. It is greeted with euphoria in some quarters and has provoked angry reaction from others. The BNP-Jamaat camp, whom the said elections bore no fruit, is overjoyed while the parties in power are embarrassed about such words directly from a diplomat’s mouth. They resent foreign interference in the internal affairs of the country. The country’s two police associations have lodged formal protests against the Japanese envoy’s comments and the Foreign Ministry has expressed concern over it and reportedly taken steps against foreign diplomats crossing the line.

A couple of questions may crop up in regard to the Japanese ambassador’s comments. Can a foreign diplomat speak such hasty words? Can a person in such a position of responsibility go public with a story which he has heard from others as he said. Does this matter fall within his jurisdiction as an ambassador to an independent and sovereign country? Isn’t that sort of behaviour a disgrace to the diplomatic norms?

This is, however, not the lone example of the breach of diplomatic etiquette by a Japanese ambassador. Another Japanese diplomat by the name of Hiroshi Soma, the deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, while giving an interview last year (2021), told a Korean reporter that President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to improve relations with Tokyo were like ‘masturbation’. The ambassador perhaps wanted to ridicule President Moon’s desire to meet with Japanese Prime Minister and meant that Moon seemed to be in a tug of war with himself which, the ambassador, in his very own brand of humour, tried to explain through sexually explicit jargon. However, the use of the obscene metaphor may fit into literature, but in no way into diplomatic demeanour. Hiroshi Soma’s outrageous remarks have set tongues wagging and denigrated the efforts to restore ties between the two countries. He was accused of conduct unbecoming to a career diplomat and his remarks were reduced to being trashed as ‘highly inappropriate’ and undiplomatic’.

In Bangladesh too, many foreign diplomats, especially the likes of Ito Naoki, tend to interfere with things that do not concern them. These meddling old guys gather in Dhaka during elections and poke their nose into the country’s internal affairs. Ironically, they are entrusted by some political parties with the responsibility of solving national problems. The parties that have long been failing to come to power through popular support, are banking on these nosey negotiators to clutch at straws. They sometimes go so far that they spread false information to discredit the government.

Do they have their counterparts in Bangladesh? It is beyond our wildest dreams that a Bangladeshi ambassador to a foreign country, can play the same role as a diplomat. But the foreign diplomats, especially the American, do not like to maintain the diplomatic norms. And it is little wonder that Japanese diplomats will sing from the same hymn. However, what they are doing in the name of diplomatic mission amounts to a breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomat Relations. The duty of foreign diplomats as enshrined in Article 41 of the Convention is to “respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state” and not to interfere with their internal affairs. Besides, the International Court of Justice, in a ruling made in 1986, ratified the non-interventionist policy as a norm of customary international law.

Who are giving the diplomats space to voice complaints, criticisms and concern? Dhaka University International Relations Professor Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed points an accusing finger at the political parties and civil society members who are paving the way for foreign interference in the internal affairs of the country. He urges to identify the politics of the ones who are giving the foreign diplomats space to poke their nose into Bangladesh’s internal affairs. The professor’s take is sufficiently grounded in fact. Really there is no accounting for taste as such. Some of our politicians and civil society members disclose confidential material to the foreign diplomats to keep the government at bay. This is not a healthy sign to bake cakes in fires breaking out in the neighbour’s house instead of trying to put it up. Former Bangladeshi ambassador to US and a career diplomat M. Humayun Kabir also expresses his concern over the foreign diplomat’s  interventionist policies and urges to make sure that they do not get opportunities to make a remark uncalled for.

There is no denying the fact that we have yet to build up a pleasant political culture. But that does not mean that we have to throw ourselves at the mercy of the foreign diplomats to get rid of it. The people of the country can be the masters of their own political future. Our Foreign Ministry can play more vital roles in this regard. They should undertake attempts to use diplomatic leverage to consolidate their position for greater efficiency in this cut-throat world of international politics.

We are at such a crossroads when soft power greases the wheels of geopolitics. Based firmly on Bangabandhu’s doctrine of friendship with all and malice towards none, our foreign policy should adopt a more persuasive approach to international relations that involves intellectual and cultural influence to promote the country’s image. But through the lack of proper talent management especially in the foreign affairs sector, we are not getting expected results from our diplomatic mission. Our failure in the recovery of GSP (Generalized System of Preference) facilities even after the introduction of necessary amendments to the country’s labour law, the abrupt sanctions on the elite paramilitary force—RAB and the dilly-dallying in the Rohingya repatriation process are not all caused by things beyond our control. A proper assessment of the foreign ministry’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and immediately remedying the problems may help strengthen our foreign affairs department and make it stand poised to take on more effective roles. They should develop friendly terms and a good working relationship with all foreign diplomats, international organizations and foreign missions stationed in Dhaka. The diplomats too should comply with the Vienna Convention and the basic decencies of civilized society and know the proper diplomatic etiquette. Regardless of which countries they belong to, they should not have any airs and graces. They should keep a civil tongue in their head, watch their mouth and keep their nose out of other countries’ internal affairs.


Dr. Rashid Askari is a freethinking writer, academic and translator. Email: [email protected]