Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Many faces of a foreign diplomat

Editorial Page
Many faces of a foreign diplomat
By Shahid Alam
Tue, 8 Nov 2005, 09:29:00

The extraordinary sequence of teacher-student relations that was Socrates, Plato and Aristotle tried to ask, among other things, the key question of what is the best form of government. While Plato did not believe that anyone should own property and thought that a “philosopher-king” should rule the people, Aristotle had diametrically opposite views. He was convinced that people wanted possessions of their own, arguing that, without owning private property or wealth, how could anyone render services to others or perform acts of generosity? As to rulers, Plato’s great pupil warned against both tyrants, on the one hand, and the mob on the other. His advice was to pick the best of the middle class and to look for reluctant candidates.

It is obvious that the two (indeed also Plato’s teacher Socrates) were pointedly individualistic in their views, and that is how it should be if nations and civilizations have to go forward. Plato, in several important ways finding resonance in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, suggested a socialist order with a benevolent leviathan running state affairs. Aristotle, in several meaningful ways finding resonance in the writings of John Locke, submitted a democratic order with an underpinning of private capitalism. Both Aristotle’s and Locke’s ideas find robust reflection in the state systems of the United States of America and the United Kingdom. They represent the archetypal forms of presidential and parliamentary democratic systems, respectively. But they have each taken over a hundred years to evolve into the mature form that they are in (just refer to the time taken in the granting of universal women’s suffrage), and they are continuing to evolve. Pluralist representative democracy is, after all, not the perfect polity, but it is the best alternative among all the polities that have been tried since the days of direct participatory democracy of the Greek city-states.

Therefore, exigencies of a situation may require making adjustments to, and even compromising on, the principles of liberal democracy, as, for example, the US, Great Britain, Australia and other established democracies have done in the post-9/11 and post-7/7 international system. By comparison, Bangladesh is a novice in the practice of democracy, effectively experiencing it for about fourteen years. And, however in fits and starts, that too in an unbroken stretch. The remarkable aspect of this phenomenon is that the Bangladeshi society, predominantly rural, has been decidedly hierarchical and has always experienced authoritarianism (whether feudalism, absolute monarchy, colonialism, martial law, or disguised military rule) as state power. It is remarkable that the Bangladeshis are holding on to democracy for an unbroken run, given their inexperience with it (which still acts as an impediment to their acquiring democracy’s most vital ingredient: a mindset for it) and the astounding volume of dysfunctions that bedevil its institutional functioning.

And yet, three consecutive general elections, certified to have been free and fair by national and international observers, including most crucially by the United States, have enabled the smooth transfer of power to the incoming government. That is the heartening part. The disheartening part is that political intolerance and distrust have reached such a distressing point that a constitutionally-approved undemocratically-constituted caretaker system has to conduct democratic polls to elect peoples’ representatives to the national parliament. And now another term in office is winding down and another general election is looming in a little over a year’s time, provided the normal procedure is followed. And everyone expects that the next election will also be free, fair and transparent. If it is not, then democracy will have received a severe setback because an evolutionary process will be turned back. The process of institutionalizing democracy has to move forward, and it will if the political parties allow it to.

However, recent remarks by the British High Commissioner to Dhaka seems to indicate that he and the European Union (EU) might be having doubts about the fairness of the next election. At a seminar on human rights and development of commercial relations, he said that the EU is helping the government and the Election Commission (EC) in institutionalizing the democratic system and ensuring free and fair elections. It may be interpreted as the EU not being certain that the next election will be free and fair and, indirectly, is casting aspersion on the government for impeding the holding of free and fair polls. Since the caretaker administration, and not the incumbent government, will be conducting the next election, and the EU must know this, one can then commentate that EU has doubts about the caretaker administration and the EC.

It is common knowledge that the Awami League (AL) and an assortment of small parties are demanding reforms to the caretaker system and the EC, and are in favour of realizing their demands outside of the parliament, and again, many knowledgeable persons believe that a section of the EU countries go along with those demands. The British High Commissioner is being overly patronizing in advising Bangladesh on the modus operandi for institutionalizing democracy (forgetting just how long it took for his own country to do it), but, in the process, he and the EU (or, at least some of the countries) may be perceived to being biased against the government. Since the caretaker system has been constitutionally agreed upon in the parliament by AL, along with other parties, any proposed reforms to it are best discussed in the legislature (if necessary, outside of it to follow up on the debates inside of it), and the High Commissioner (and the EU envoys) should first be advising AL to take up the issue in parliament (as the government has repeatedly invited it to do) before broadly hinting at the imperative of reforms.

Another issue raised by the High Commissioner has more than a touch of irony to it. He practically said that, as major donors, EU has a right to demand good human rights record of the government. He expressed the EU’s concern about attacks and persecution of the minorities, including the Ahmadiyya community. Here he is treading on dangerous waters. Any persecution of minorities deserves to be condemned and met with robust action by officialdom, but the government has of late taken steps to stop attacks on the Ahmadiyyas, and he is surely exaggerating about minority repression. The care taken by the government to ensure security during the minority communities’ religious festivals, most eloquently attested to by the increasing number of puja mondops each year during the Durga puja and its largely incident-free celebration, belie the envoy’s comments. The High Commissioner’s comments are rich, considering that his own country has compromised on human rights by decree and its police and other officials often flout them without breaking the law by their discriminatory behaviour against Muslims, ethnic minorities, and anyone they perceive to be adherents of the Islamic faith. Disguised abuse of human rights is no better than that of openly flouting them.

Just as the British government has found it necessary to institute certain tough measures (which has already claimed the life of an innocent Brazilian in London) in the wake of the 7 July 2005 train and bus bombings, so has the Bangladesh government to introduce RAB and other special police units to restore and then improve the country’s deteriorating law and order situation. In this the special units have been quite successful, although some of the methods used, like extra judicial killings, constitute human rights violation. However, any government has a duty to ensure security for the ordinary citizen and sometimes, as the UK has found it necessary to resort to on more than one occasion over the last one hundred years, it becomes indispensable to submit to the exigencies of an abnormal situation. The British High Commissioner’s statement about human rights was unpleasantly patronizing, bordering on arrogance, very tongue-in-cheek in the context of his own country’s political decisions, and diplomatically questionable.[]

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