The Foreign Secretary's comments are ‘undiplomatic’

The Foreign Secretary's comments are ‘undiplomatic’

Newspaper reports suggest that at the present time there are no heads of foreign missions of Bangladesh in 12 countries, including Malaysia, Belgium and Switzerland (The Daily Star 29 March). In addition, the government has called back three ambassadors and another six such positions will be falling vacant by the end of this year.

Analysts and observers are of the view that diplomatic relations and efforts to safeguard interest of expatriate Bangladeshi workers abroad are being hampered due to vacancies of ambassadorial positions in 12 countries.

The running of one-quarter of the 47 diplomatic missions without ambassadors or high commissioners, as the case may be, is quite astonishing. This is a matter for grave concern given that some of these missions are located in countries where significant economic, commercial and manpower export interests of Bangladesh are involved. These include Kuwait and Bahrain. For some countries such as Kuwait, the position of ambassador remains vacant for almost a year.

Sometimes the Government may arrange for a counsellor or any other officer to act in the position of a diplomatic mission head as a stop-gap measure when such a vacancy occurs. However, these arrangements should be temporary and any vacancy requires to be filled as quickly as possible to ensure smooth and uninterrupted continuity of business from a strategic perspective.

Day-to-day administration of the mission may not be a problem if someone is acting in an ambassador’s position during a short period of time. At issue is whether the strategic and long-term interests of Bangladesh can be served by acting arrangements that may run for months together. Those acting in higher positions may not have full authority to make decisions on a range of matters, not to speak of hesitance and lack of willingness to take responsibility to pursue matters of complexity and be accountable for his or her actions at a later stage.

The same newspaper reports quoted the Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain saying that the positions fell vacant towards the end of the former caretaker government (of Fakhruddin Ahmed), which were expected to be filled by the next elected government (currently the government of Sheikh Hasina). This statement does not align with facts if the newspaper reports are accurate. The position of ambassador in Bahrain remains vacant since June 2007 while Kuwait remains without an ambassador since April 2008.

The Foreign Secretary was of the view that the vacancies of heads of diplomatic missions are usual and “there is nothing to do research on it”. In essence, these statements and comments from the Foreign Secretary imply that the media, analysts or the pubic do not have to worry about the issue of a large number of mission head vacancies as Bangladesh’s interests overseas are not affected. He also suggested that “there is nothing to hurry” about appointments to these vacant positions.

I consider the statements and comments by the Foreign Secretary to be ‘insensitive’ to genuine public concerns about an important diplomatic issue having significance to Bangladesh’s strategic and economic interest overseas. It is well understood that in some cases a position cannot always be filled as soon as it becomes vacant for a variety of reasons.

However, in most cases, the Bangladesh Foreign Office knows when vacancies will occur due to retirements and expiry of contracts concerning ambassadorial positions. The Foreign Secretary should be responsive and take proactive steps towards filling such vacant positions by engaging the Foreign Minister (or the Adviser when the country is run by a caretaker government) and other relevant authorities having powers to make decisions.

I believe there are high calibre career diplomats in Bangladesh who deserve promotions to higher positions and be appointed as ambassadors or high commissioners. In some cases, appointments to these positions can be made through deployment of competent persons outside of the foreign service. In fact, political appointments to diplomatic positions are not unusual. However, forward-looking measures anticipating future developments are what the government needs to do to avoid a crisis situation about appointments to positions of leadership and high level management in the public service, including the foreign service.

At the end of the day, it is a political decision on the part of the government of the day to consider appointments to the positions of ambassadors and high commissioners for overseas missions of Bangladesh. However, as the head of the Foreign Office, the Foreign Secretary cannot avoid his responsibility for inadequate or sub-optimal performance of a mission due to non-posting of the head of a diplomatic mission.

Let us take an example relating to Bangladesh Mission in Australia. During the term of office of high commissioner Asfraf-ud-Daula in 2005 and 2006, Bangladesh and Australia entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on temporary working holiday visa. The MOU was signed when the former Minister for Immigration Amanda Vanston visited Bangladesh. Subsequently Ashrad-ud-Daula was transferred from Australia to Japan as the ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan.

Humayun Kabir, then ambassador to Nepal, replaced Ashraf-ud-Daula as the high commissioner to Australia.

Humayun Kabir’s tenure in Australia was brief – only about a year and a half when he was appointed as ambassador to the USA in mid 2007. Following his departure, the high commissioner’s position in Australia remained vacant for over 15 months and two counsellors, by turn, served as the acting high commissioner for Australia during this period.

Australia can source its skilled labour supply from a variety of countries without depending on Bangladesh. However, Bangladesh cannot export its surplus manpower to any country at any time. In this case, since there was an apparent lack of follow-up actions by the relevant authority in Bangladesh and its diplomatic mission in Australia, the MOU has remained to be a skeleton without fleshing out into a full-bodied agreement that could have provided real benefit to manpower export from Bangladesh, be it temporary working holidays.

The vacancy of the position of high commissioner for Australia for over 15 months may have contributed to the lack of progress of the MOU on temporary working holiday visa for Bangladeshi citizens. Thus the vacancy of a diplomatic mission head may matter in terms of whether Bangladesh’s interests in overseas countries are affected or not. And concerned people have the right to express their views on such matters. The media often does investigative ‘research’ and analysis and reports on issues of public interest.

The Foreign Secretary’s comments that “there is nothing to do research on it” underestimate the role of the media in a free and democratic society. His comments are devoid of maturity expected of a senior public servant and are ‘undiplomatic’, for sure.

Abdul Quader writes from Canberra

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