by David Bergman
In conversations that took place in the weeks before the country’s January 2014 election, United States diplomats warned Indian government officials that their support for uncontested elections in Bangladesh would store up trouble for the future.
Events unfolding now in Bangladesh suggest that — at least on this point — the United States was spot on.
Even those who think that the Awami League did nothing wrong in holding the elections without the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s participation must acknowledge that the country is now reaping the consequences of an election in which only the Awami League and its allied parties took part, leaving over half of the country disenfranchised.
Principal responsibility for this situation lies with the Awami League — if only because it started the ball rolling by unilaterally removing the election-time caretaker-government provisions from the constitution.
But the BNP must also take its fair share of blame for failing to respond to overtures from the Awami League for a compromise.
But what about the so-called ‘international community’?
Before the election, the vast majority of the international community (composed of the United Nations, and ‘western’ countries) were all pushing hard for an agreement between the two political parties and so carry no blame for the January 5 elections.
To the extent that the international community helped Bangladesh in going ahead with the one-sided elections, it was India and Russia that must shoulder responsibility.
However, when one considers why, a year on from the elections, Bangladesh, is in such a quagmire, the United Nations and western countries are far from blameless.
Although in the days after January 5, they all issued strongly worded statements criticising the elections, these international actors quickly became content with the status quo and took no concerted action to press for new elections.
Let us first look at the United Nations.
In December 2013, the UN secretary general sent Oscar Fernandez-Taranco to Dhaka to try to facilitate dialogue between the country’s two main parties and broker some kind of political deal.
The details of the meetings are not fully known, but diplomats confirm that the Awami League negotiators told Taranco that the holding of the January 5 elections was simply a ‘constitutional necessity’ and that immediately after the poll the party would initiate talks with the BNP to discuss holding a new election. This was a commitment given not just to the United Nations but to other diplomats.
The day after the elections, the United Nations issued a statement in which the secretary general ‘regretted that the parties did not reach the kind of agreements which could have produced a peaceful, all-inclusive election outcome… [and] called on the political parties to resume meaningful dialogue and to urgently address the expectations of the people of Bangladesh for an inclusive political process.’
This is a strong statement, and presumably written with Awami League’s commitments to Taranco in mind..
Did the United Nations do anything to make this happen, to ensure that the Awami League government followed through on its commitment? According to one diplomat, some ‘desultory’ contacts between the United Nations and Bangladesh government officials did take place but ‘they certainly did not press.’
So having received a commitment from the Awami League to enter an immediate dialogue with the opposition concerning the holding of new elections, the United Nations did practically nothing to make sure it happened.
The United Nations made no further public statements calling for an election and there were no more visits from Taranco.
Next, let us look at the European Union.
A day after the United Nations posted its election statement, the EU’s high representative Catherine Ashton stated that the EU had ‘repeatedly called on all parties to create favourable conditions for transparent, inclusive and credible elections. The high representative, therefore, regrets the fact that such conditions did not materialise and that the people of Bangladesh were not given an opportunity to express fully their democratic choice.’
The EU statement asked the parties to ‘engage in genuine dialogue to agree on a mutually acceptable way forward to strengthen democratic accountability and to hold transparent, inclusive and credible elections, putting the interests of the people of Bangladesh first.’
What did they do after that? Apparently not very much. Perhaps, EU officials reminded the Bangladesh government of its commitment to hold a new election at various meetings, but nothing much else.
Significantly, the European Union had the option of considering the use of an important lever — threatening the temporary suspension of the country’s GSP facilities.
The EU’s GSP regulation states that ‘preferential arrangements… may be withdrawn temporarily’ if there has been ‘serious and systematic violation of principles laid down in any of the 27 listed United Nations and International Labour Organisation conventions.
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of the listed conventions states, ‘Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity… without unreasonable restrictions… to vote… at genuine periodic elections… guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.’
A ‘General Comment’ published by UN’s monitoring UN Human Rights Committee states that the right to vote ‘lies at the core of democratic government based on the consent of the people’ and that states must take steps to ensure that ‘citizens have an effective opportunity to enjoy’ it.
It adds that ‘Genuine periodic elections… are essential to ensure the accountability of representatives for the exercise of the legislative or executive powers vested in them’ and are required to ensure that ‘the authority of government continues to be based on the free expression of the will of electors.’
Arguably, the elections in Bangladesh on January 5, particularly in the context of a broken government commitment to hold dialogue with the opposition allowed the EU to use its lever.
There were certainly grounds for the EU to consider that the elections were in breach of this international standard; voters in 153 out of 300 constituencies had no opportunity to vote; in most of the other 147 seats, voters had to choose between candidates from the same party alliance; and there was a low turnout, in some constituencies only 10 per cent.
However, not many weeks after the election, the EU clarified that it would not use this lever, and that it was in fact ‘business as usual’ with the Bangladesh government.
Other individual government’s also made strong statements after the election — and then did practically nothing.
Australian’s government’s minister for foreign affairs Julie Bishop stated, ‘It is vital that the people of Bangladesh are able to express their democratic will and exercise real choice. The government and the opposition must take up their shared responsibility to hold a new, fully contested and transparent election as soon as possible.’
Canadian’s foreign minister John Baird ‘urge[d] all parties to reach an agreement soon that would allow the next election to be truly participatory, with results that all Bangladeshis will see as credible.’
The Federal Republic of Germany stated that ‘These elections are an extremely poor reflection of the electorate’s will’ and ‘urge[d] the Bangladesh government and all political parties to overcome their differences in the interest of the country and to work together to bring about inclusive, peaceful and credible democratic elections.’
The French government called ‘on all parties to… encourage the main political forces to resume dialogue within the framework of the country’s democratic institutions.’
And Kamalesh Sharma, representing all Commonwealth countries stated: ‘[I]t is critical that Bangladesh moves quickly to find a path forward through dialogue to a more inclusive and peaceful political process in which the will of the people can be fully expressed.’
Whatever action these countries took to pressure the government, it was very limited indeed.
One country, the United States did take more steps in trying to keep the pressure on the Awami League government. After issuing a strongly worded statements — calling on the parties to ‘engage in immediate dialogue to find a way to hold as soon as possible elections that are free, fair, peaceful, and credible, reflecting the will of the Bangladeshi people’, it specifically called for elections to take place by June 2014. And, alone amongst all the countries it kept up the pressure for some months But for sometime now the United States has been toeing the same line taken by the rest of the international community so that the recent press statement given by the United States’s new ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat did not even mention the word ‘elections’.
The failure of the United Nations and independent states to apply concerted pressure on the Awami League government forcing it to act on its commitment to the United Nations in holding new elections is a significant factor explaining why Bangladesh is in the current quagmire.
Why then did the international community not do more?
One reason is that it has allowed India to dictate international policy towards Bangladesh. This is most obvious in relation to the United States, which has a strategic alliance with India (where India insists on dictating policy towards Bangladesh), but it also informs the way other countries view the country.
Another reason is a concern about the involvement of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the main opposition alliance.
Whilst countries are critical of many aspects of the Awami League government, they have greater concerns about the election of a government comprising an Islamic fundamentalist party. Whilst they would have preferred that proper elections had taken place in 2013, they are uncertain about pushing for an election which could result in a BNP-Jamaat government.
Thirdly, the international community thinks it has limited levers — and the levers that they do have, to be ‘too big’. For the EU to play its GSP card, without the government succumbing to the pressure, could create a huge risk to the economy, diplomats say. And for the United Nations to play its peace keeping card — threatening the removal of Bangladesh army perks — would not necessarily result in the elections that are being sought, and would in any case be difficult for the United Nations at a time when it needs Bangladeshi army peacekeepers.
And finally, the countries had another justification for not acting — the lack of an apparent popular ‘movement’ against the elections. Though, the lack of any ‘movement’ was principally due to the BNP calling off its protest on the basis of the Awami League’s commitment to holding new elections!
Bangladesh right now is far from being the first country to have suffered due to international ‘realpolitik’. But that is certainly what has happened over the past year — and as a result, in allowing the Awami League government to simply consolidate coercive power after the elections, and in failing to press systematically for new elections, the United Nations and western countries must share significant responsibility over the country’s current crisis.
Source: New Age