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OP-ED: The politics of international diplomacy

  • Published at 12:41 am November 29th, 2020

What is badly needed now is a rise of active and concerted voices of protest, resistance, and rebellion

The UN Third Committee recently approved a resolution expressing grave concern at serious human rights violations on Rohingya in Myanmar, which caused the forced displacement of more than a million Rohingya to Bangladesh. 

The resolution recorded a vote of 131 in favour and nine against, including China, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, and others with 31 abstentions, including India, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka -- conspicuously, our avowed best friendly neighbours. The voting pattern speaks of compulsions of priority of national interest in multilateral diplomacy regardless of the just causes at issue.

A different ball game

But bilateral diplomacy is a different ball game. Bilateral diplomacy largely depends on thematic arguments, negotiations, and consensus for the protection of the interests of respective countries. In this context, the recent visit of the US deputy secretary of defense to Bangladesh may be very relevant. Here, Bangladesh displayed remarkable diplomatic aplomb, wisdom, and foresight by politely declining the US proposal to join Indo-Pacific Defense Agreement along with the US and India, an alliance precisely aimed at containing perceived Chinese expanding spheres of influence in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea.

China is our tested ally, with which we have deep and enduring multi-dimensional political, economic, and military interests, and hence we could ill afford to alienate them. The US deputy defense secretary returned home apparently satisfied about our points of view.

The success of bilateral diplomatic endeavours also largely depends on personal relations, rapport, and harmony for the attainment of friendship through hospitality and entertainment. In the early 80s, I was a first secretary in charge of press and culture at our diplomatic mission in Kolkata (then Calcutta). One day, I came to know that the poet Shamsur Rahman, along with his wife, was visiting Calcutta. This was an opportunity to promote to our best advantage.

I organized a reception in his honour to invite eminent intellectuals, journalists, poets, and writers of the city who could be of help to create a favourable public opinion in our favour on current issues of our concern like the Farakka barrage, Tin Bigha and boundary demarcation, etc.

Apart from that, it was a constant challenge for us to make the Zia-Ershad military government acceptable to the civil society of Kolkata, or for that matter, any democratic country. I, however, as a student of English literature was familiar with the literary and cultural activities in Kolkata and soon developed intimate personal relations with eminent writers and journalists, and thus was easily acceptable to the local cultural milieu.

During my tenure, there were very few anti-Bangladesh reports or comments in Kolkata dailies, particularly in Ananda Bazar Patrika, generally prone to publishing negative stories about Bangladesh. Some newspapers even published our Independence Day supplements free of revenue, supported by their own advertisements.

I can’t help mentioning an interesting incident on the eve of the reception. I received a telephone call: “I am Fazle Lohani speaking. I am in Calcutta now. Don’t you think there should be a report in the newspaper?”

I was flabbergasted. I said: “Certainly, your show Jodi Kichu Mone Na Koren on BTV is equally popular here. You are a celebrity, yet it would not be proper to publish a report without ascertaining why you have come here, where you are putting up, and who is your companion, if any, lest there be unnecessary scurrilous rumours later.”

I told him that poet Shamsur Rahman was now in Kolkata, and that I had organized a party in his honour. Notable intellectuals, journalists, poets, and writers of the city were invited there. He was also cordially invited. Journalists present there would be able to write an exclusive interview on him. On hearing this, he was in rage, and said: “I only attend parties of ambassadors.” 

I put down the telephone instantly, knowing full well his fame, influence, and relations with powers in authority in Dhaka.

As soon as I went to the office the next day, the head of the mission, Aminul Islam, called me. I realized that I was in trouble. As I entered the room, I saw Fazle Lohani sitting next to Aminul Islam. Seeing me, he got up from his chair, hugged me, and almost shouted: “Hannan bhai, how come you didn’t let me know that you are the elder brother of Hasnat Abdul Hye? Hasnat was my best friend in the 50s when we were in London. I must go to your party.”

I said: “I did not say so because I have a distinct identity of my own, no matter how small it may be.”

He said: “Please don’t embarrass me anymore.”

My father often used to say: “There is a lot of pride and satisfaction in living with the intrinsic splendour and charm of one’s own character and identity. Don’t underestimate yourself by radiating with the glory of the identity of others.”

The star attractions among the invited guests at the party were Annada Shankar Roy, former ICS and an eminent writer, Desh Patrika editor Sagarmoy Ghosh, statesman Sunanda Dutt Roy, also a contributor to New York Times Herald Tribune, Jugantar’s Amitabh Chowdhury, poet Shakti Chatterjee, Sunil Gangopadhyay, film director Mrinal Sen, Basanta Chowdhury, Nabonita Dev Sen, Anjali Mukherjee, and others.

Everyone at the party wanted to hear Shamsur Rahman’s poems. Dawud Haider, now a German expatriate, was then in Kolkata. He recited in his sublime voice Shamsur Rahman’s timeless indestructible poem “Asader shirt,” “Bornomala Amar Dukhini Bornomala,” “Tomake Pawar Jonne, he Shadhinota.” Dawood Haider’s full-throated, heart-wrenching recitation created a charm of a magical trance. There was pin drop silence, everyone was overwhelmed and speechless with eyes wet in tears.

As everybody was leaving the party, Fazle Lohani asked me: “What have you done, Hannan bhai? The whole city of Kolkata was at your home.”

I said: “Thanks to Shamsur Rahman’s reputation and wide acclaim, thanks to the fatal attraction of the drink, a very ancient diplomatic etiquette, courtesy, and stratagem to win friends and influence people. I am merely a pretext.”

The Shamsur couple said: “Mr Hannan, thank you very much for organizing such a big party.”

I said: “My pleasure. I am truly honoured.”

My next place of work was as a counsellor in the UN Bangladesh Mission in New York. The chief of mission, Ambassador General Wasiuddin, called me and said: “I have assigned you to work in the Special Political Committee. I saw your CV. I trust you can do it. The main topic of the committee is the long lingering and festering Palestinian issue. I alone looked after my work on that committee for six years. I made impassioned statements in the committee narrating the sufferings and agony of hapless Palestinians thrown out of their homeland and now languishing in Israeli occupied West Bank and Gaza, confined and cloistered in clusters of ghettos in the West Bank surrounded by walls of Israeli settlements.

“Yet, Israel’s powerful friends at the UN dithered and stonewalled every effort of the international community to find a two-state solution to the Palestine Question. I had to explain my conduct to the ambassador based on allegations of the Western powers. I played an active role in framing the resolutions of the committee, and I moved the resolutions for six consecutive years in a row. The contribution of Arab states in this task was conspicuously insignificant.” 

What a cruel irony of international relations when I see the Arab Gulf states now signing agreements with Israel in the White House with president Trump’s blessings -- Palestinians’ two adversaries out to wipe them out, let alone grant them the status of an independent Palestine state. 

What is distressing is the internecine hatred and conflict between some Muslim states and Arab states, particularly pitted against Iran, at the behest of Israel and brokered by President Trump.

The most recent visit, first ever by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman, attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was significant.

A helpless spectator

My six years at the UN is an important chapter in my life. While working with the diplomats of 182 (now 193) member countries from day to day, I had the opportunity to see first-hand the real face of multilateral diplomacy. Behind the facade of internationalism of the international community lies militant nationalism, petty zealous national interests, naked competition for imperial and neocolonial hegemony, and authoritarian supremacy and influence by superpowers.

The watchwords of diplomacy here are opportunism and realpolitik; ethics and morality, fair play and justice are secondary. Hence, despite UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s warning and concerns about endangered world peace, democracy, human rights, economic equality, the rule of law, climate change-threatening environmental disasters, we see continuing wars augmented by big powers in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, causing havoc and destruction of homes and lives, and rendering millions displaced and dispossessed.

My heart bleeds when I hear the cries and sighs of persecuted Kashmiris and Rohingya, when I hear the pangs of the procession of devastated refugees, when I see the tragic death of migrants by boats sinking while crossing the Mediterranean -- an extreme denigration of humanity and a disgrace to mankind. Yet, the UN remains a helpless spectator faced with international intransigence and rivalry over spreading spheres of influence.

What is badly needed now is a rise of active and concerted voices of protest, resistance, rebellion, and mass movement to create a loud world opinion by the conscientious poets, writers, and intellectuals of civil society of the world to repair the damage of this ignoble injustice, chaos, and disorder in the world. This cannot be allowed to continue unabated.

My six years at the United Nations on the eve of my retirement from my job was a precious experience, reminiscent of Tagore’s poem “Bipula Ei Prithibir Koto tuku Jani” (how little do I know of this vast universe?).

Abdul Hannan is a columnist and a former diplomat.

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