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Why foreign diplomats must maintain diplomatic etiquette, protocol in Bangladesh

By Kamal Uddin Mazumder* 

Foreign governments and organizations are not allowed to dictate how a sovereign country like Bangladesh should run its politics.
The 12th national parliamentary elections are drawing near, and the election wind has started to blow in Dhaka. The political parties have already begun to plan their voting strategy through a variety of events. However, this time, the diplomatic community in Dhaka is very 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 elections' management, fairness, and impartiality -- issues that are unquestionably domestic to Bangladesh and in no way fall under the purview of diplomacy. Additionally, it has been noted that diplomats have made public remarks on these subjects in front of the media.
It raises the question of how much authority diplomatic protocol has to design election diplomacy in the host nation. Foreign diplomats' propensity to interfere in developing nations is not a recent development in world politics. Instead, it is a recurring problem that has persisted throughout history.
After a bloody Liberation War, Bangladesh attained independence in 1971 but struggled to establish strong democratic foundations. The nation's efforts to establish itself as a stable democracy, however, 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 its independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, creating a political crisis for the young country. The struggle for control between various groups in the years that followed prompted foreign diplomats to meddle openly or covertly in domestic affairs of the nation. It cannot be said that such intervention is over, even though the perception of it has significantly changed.
Bangladesh has a history of using foreign ambassadors to mediate political crises due to the country's severe political divisions. Major political parties frequently complain to foreign embassies about internal problems, whether they are in or out of power.
In an effort to reach an election-centered settlement, diplomats aim to position themselves as a solution to issues, potentially opening the door to entering the nation's politics.
Bangladesh is heavily reliant on financial assistance from its development allies. This connection occasionally compels the nation to accept restrictions on matters of democracy and governance.
Additionally, under the guise of aid diplomacy, some have charged diplomats with wilfully interfering in the domestic affairs of developing nations. Additionally, they attempt to advance their foreign policies, such as maintaining US hegemony and Western centrism, by interfering in the internal affairs of developing nations using democracy and human rights as effective means.

Beyond the bounds of etiquette

The goal of diplomacy is to build and diversify relationships, promote collaboration, trade, and investment, prevent confrontations, and ultimately benefit both parties.
In order to navigate an ever-expanding list of common issues like the economic crisis, climate change, pandemics, transnational terrorism, and the arms race that could be fatal if left unresolved, effective and skillful diplomacy is essential.
A diplomatic representative is a representation of the two states' bilateral relationship. Although winning the "hearts and minds" of the local community is a diplomat's top 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 continued to speak publicly about the fairness and climate for voting in the impending elections, which are in no way within the scope of traditional 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 honorable.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, Article 41 paragraph 1, expressly prohibits diplomats from interfering in the internal affairs of the receiving state and reminds them to follow its laws and regulations.
Once more, there may be concern that if civic and democratic spaces are reduced, people who oppose the government may be pushed toward religious extremists, with unanticipated political repercussions.
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 organizations (of which Bangladesh is a member) are welcome to offer their advice and opinion on various important issues.
The people and the political parties of the nation must decide how the election commission will operate or how elections will be held because it is a domestic matter. 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 the opposing parties, or speak with civil society to convey the specific issues of his government. However, when they meet with them in reference to a domestic political issue in the host nation, it is improper and wrong.

Sometimes it appears like they are siding in the present political climate based on their actions. It's not necessarily a negative thing for ambassadors to offer constructive criticism. However, such criticism must be delivered to their hosts covertly and away from the spotlight.
Bangladeshi government critics claim that the country's declining democratic credentials jeopardize the democratic values upon which it was founded. Foreign diplomats interfering in Dhaka's political problems, however, produces 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 diplomats will decide how Bangladeshi politics will be discussed moving 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 has vehemently denied, President 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 free rein to meddle in domestic issues. Despite the Vienna Convention, no proud nation will let ambassadors to openly criticize its politics or system of government.
Therefore, diplomatic missions in Bangladesh should remember that democracy is a universal value and 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 power.
---
*Researcher and strategic affairs analyst, Dhaka

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