Recently, the Bangladesh government and the elite club of Western democratic countries appear to be getting embroiled in serious differences over what constitutes normal diplomatic behaviour of diplomats and what seems to be an affront to the inviolable 'sovereignty' of a country .
The developed countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and other European Community (EC) countries have an informal grouping of like minded countries in Dhaka comprising their diplomats stationed here. They are referred to as the Tuesday group for their tradition of holding meetings on Tuesdays. The main objective of the group is to concert their policies in respect of Bangladesh that professedly include helping the consolidation of democracy and democratic values in this country, promotion of free and fair elections, human rights and other beliefs generally claimed as practiced in those countries.
The Tuesday group has been expressing its interest in the general elections to be held in Bangladesh next year. Members of the group have alluded to their fears centering on this election. They have been issuing statements in rather clear terms about unfair practices or other developments to occur in relation to the election. Therefore, they are keen on initiating a process at an early date that would oblige authorities in this country to agree to adopt certain fair practices in their view that would ensure the holding of a truly free and fair election . To this end, they want to hold a conference in Dhaka early in the new year with the participation of different stakeholders.
The reaction of the government of Bangladesh (GOB) to the proposal was an angry but not an unreasonable one. GOB expressed its clear disapproval of such a conference and said that its holding would not be permitted. First the Foreign Secretary and then the Foreign Minister gave statements that the move was a clear contravention of various protocols that diplomats of any country are bound to observe under them and a case of a flagrant attempt to violate the sovereignty of the country. According to newspaper reports, members of the Tuesday group felt rather estranged from the GOB after these remarks and the decision of not allowing the so called election conference to be held.
But the pertinent question is whether the GOB was within its rights in the legal, political and any other sense in saying what it said and in doing what it did. The issue seems to be an interesting one afresh of state sovereignty and international law. Notwithstanding encroachments on it or violation of it, international law is more or less adhered to by all countries of the world. If there were no such laws and the compelling need to adhere to them, then there would be complete anarchy in inter-state relations. Any country could intrude into the affairs of another in total disregard of state sovereignty and conflicts would only multiply disrupting the regional and global peace and security. Indeed, the greatest advocates of international law have been the developed or Western countries and at the centrepoint of international law is state sovereignty which means that a state enjoys complete freedom to manage its own affairs as it sees best within its own territories and reserves the right to do so uninterrupted by any external quarter. Thus, according to the tenets of international law, Bangladesh government has every sovereign right to refuse to accept any suggestion coming from any foreign source because the canons of international law uphold such rights or freedoms.
International law only approves of the violation or intrusion into state sovereignty in cases where actions under the banner of the United Nations (UN) are duly authorized. For that purpose, the highest body of the UN, the Security Council, has to agree in a vote after avoiding the exercise of the veto power of a permanent member in it, that a rogue country is posing a threat to international peace and security and that collective actions against it, if necessary the invasion of it, should be attempted to remove the threat and restore international peace and security. Furthermore, the general moral support of the UN General assembly is also expected in line with such a decision of the Security Council. In no other case, the UN permits activities that can be construed as making of physical or other forms of inroads into the sovereignty of any of its sovereign members.
Members of the Tuesday Club are for establishing fair democratic practices in Bangladesh. But the whole world was a spectacle to the highly controversial outcome to the last Presidential election in the US when the opponent of President Bush complained about large scale irregularities in the counting of the votes. He did not press his case far on grounds of national unity and to avoid tangles in the transition to the highest position of leadership in the country, He sacrificed a lot, it seemed, for a smooth transition and to keep the country stable. But that episode brought sharply into focus the hypocrisy that the country that preaches the world about democracy and fairness of elections was itself found marred in an election to select its President that was shockingly found not above controversies and unfair practices. Ironically, the envoy of that country in Bangladesh now wants to tutor the host country about fair election and related issues.
It is also not irrelevant to explore the track record of the US and some other Western and so called democratic countries in supporting democracy or fair elections round the world. For instance, the world remembers how the US and other Western countries decided not to recognise the outcome of a fully fair elections in Tunisia because in that elections the Islamists triumphed much to their dislike. Subsequently, the election results in Tunisia were quashed and a military coup there led to the coming to power of a military strongman . But democratic America had no angst in dealing warmly with the military despot. The same US attitude and that of some other Western countries was seen again and again in respect of developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. They had no qualms in maintaining the most cordial relations with military dictators in those countries if that favoured their geopolitical and other objectives. US and Western countries were found turning a blind eye to even worst forms of human rights abuses in many instances in developing countries in their own narrow interests. Therefore, their tears shedding now for democracy and fair elections in Bangladesh, indeed come as a surprise.
Democracy and fair elections are not universal values and matters of international law to be enforced. The former Soviet Union and other communist countries did not have a democratic system in the Western sense. But that did not prevent them from having their sovereign rights respected in the UN and under international law. The US and other Western countries that practice a different political and economic system could not claim that , under international law, they enjoyed legal rights and duties to make inroads into the affairs of those countries and that their mission enjoyed the sanction of international law.
What Bangladesh should do about its elections are entirely the matters of its people to decide. As it is, Bangladeshis on their own traveled far in uniquely establishing the safety valve of the caretaker government that presided over successive free and fair elections . If there are dissensions now about the election system in Bangladesh and proposals to further upgrade or improve it, then these are matters for all Bangladeshis to discuss and take decisions unitedly. Given their past records of rising to the occasion, it is not impractical to think that Bangladeshis will collectively again rise to the occasion with maturity and sensibility to finally sort out their differences, if any, over elections. They don't need outsiders to show them the way or to take sides in the process. The same would be tantamount to a violation of their inviolable sovereign rights as a country and a people to preside in a paramount manner over their own affairs.