Elections, diplomatic norms and the 'Japanese bomb'

Japanese ambassador Ito NaokiCollected

The Japanese ambassador has exploded a bomb. Ambassador Ito Naoki was the chief guest at a 'Meet the Ambassador' event of the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). Speaking at this event held on 14 November, he said that Japan wanted to see Bangladesh's next national parliamentary election held in a free and fair manner with the participation of all political parties. He said they had heard that earlier ballot boxes had been stuffed on the night before the election, something not heard of anywhere else in the world. He said he hoped there would be no chance for that happening this time and that such incidents would not occur again.

This remark of the Japanese ambassador in reference to the 2018 national parliamentary election became the talk of the town. State minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam said the foreign ministry would ask for an explanation of the ambassador's remark. The next day ambassador Ito Naoki met with the foreign secretary. He said during the meeting they discussed the prime minister's forthcoming visit to Japan. They did not discuss any political issue or the election. However, Shahriar Alam posted on his Facebook page, "We summoned the Japanese ambassador to Bangladesh. We told him whatever needed to be said." He even referred to Article 41 the Vienna Convention regarding diplomatic norms which bars foreign diplomats for interfering in internal matters of the host country.

Meanwhile, minister for agriculture Abdur Razzaque also commented on the issue. He said interference of any other country in the election will not be tolerated and a warning will be issued to those commenting on the election. This is clearly a matter of the foreign ministry and the state minister for foreign affairs gave his reaction. It is not at all clear why the minister for agriculture had to respond to this. It seems that our ministers have taken the term 'collective responsibility' quite literally.

It is certainly a part of diplomatic norms not to interfere in the internal matters of the host country. But our politicians only remember this when they are at the helm of power. The moment they are in the opposition, they forget all about this and rush off to the ambassadors with their grievances. They even give foreign entities the opportunity to play the role of mediator. One may recall Sir Ninian or the Taranco mission.

Ambassadors of powerful countries are fully aware nothing will happen to them even if they make such comments. Also, it is a part of the foreign policy of western countries to provide support and assistance to third world countries to establish democracy and good governance. That is why even if it goes against the Vienna Convention, they are, in a manner, fulfilling their mandate. Even the German ambassador only recently made a similar statement. The US annual report also said that the 2018 election was not free and fair. There is no reason to believe that the Japanese ambassador made this remark off the cuff. The Japanese ambassador does not do anything on impulse. It must be understood that his statement has approval, direct or indirect, of the headquarters.

I have been confronted by two questions repeatedly over the past two days. Why are the ambassadors not refraining from such comments after being cautioned several times by the foreign ministry? The answer is simple. The ambassadors know that even if they do not take these warnings seriously, no stern action will be taken against them. The second question is, do ambassadors in other countries poke their noses into the internal affairs of those countries too? If not, why do they do so in Bangladesh?

The comment over which such a stir has been created, actually reflects the views of Bangladesh's civil society. Do the people of Bangladesh want another election like that of 2018?

The answer to this question is not so simple. The countries of the West do interfere in the internal affairs of weak and anarchic countries of Africa. So the comments of western ambassadors about Bangladesh's elections are nothing unique. Democracy is not perfect in all countries. The US organisation working on issues of democracy, Freedom House, categorises India and the US as flawed democracies. But despite the minor flaws, these countries have credible elections at regular intervals and, broadly speaking, it is the voters who determine who will run the country. That is why the ambassadors do not make such comments about the elections in India and similar countries.

How can such an apparently untoward and disconcerting situation be overcome? Theoretically speaking, there are two ways to overcome this.

One. To become such a powerful country that we do not need to give two hoots about objections from the western countries, and if any ambassadors violate diplomatic norms, they can first be warned and later be declared persona non grata. There is very little chance of Bangladesh achieving such heights any time soon. After all, the ambassadors who are violating the Vienna Convention to make these remarks, are from countries that are the major markets of our export goods and the source of our loans and grants. It is not possible for Bangladesh to displease them.

Two. The comment over which such a stir has been created, actually reflects the views of Bangladesh's civil society. Do the people of Bangladesh want another election like that of 2018? They want the elections to be held in a festive atmosphere, in the daytime, not at night. They do not want any party man to enter the booth to tell them where to cast their vote.

Representatives of all parties will be present during the voting and vote counting. No one will be coerced. Whichever candidate receives the highest number of votes, will be declared the winner. These very normal matters have been lost from our election culture.

This must be restored. If that is possible, then it will no longer be necessary for western ambassadors to go out of their way to make adverse comments on Bangladesh's elections. For as long as we do not do this, they will continue to violate the Vienna Convention and make such comments. We will continue to protest, no matter what the results may be.

* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary.

* This article appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir