An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country,” said Sir Henry Wotton back in 1604, and some things never seem to change. American ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson came visiting as Bill Clinton’s special envoy to South Asia in April. At the centre of his visit to Dhaka was a keynote speech he gave on 13 April at the Bangladesh Institute of International & Strategic Studies.
The talk bore the epic title “Making Democracy Work in the 21st Century”, and as one would expect, Richardson used it to reiterate the current concerns of American foreign policy as it relates to the Subcontinent. His sermon included references to human rights, child labour, the advancement of women and international trade. All of it worthy stuff, spoken as though there was unity of purpose and objectives, shared by one and all.
Other aspects of Richardson’s remarks, however, were at variance with the Bangladeshi experience. Let’s start at the very beginning, on page one.
“Bangladesh is… a Muslim country and its track record of democracy breaks many of the conventional negative stereotypes about Muslim countries… Bangladesh is dramatic evidence that Islamic countries can be strong democracies.”
So Muslims can be good guys too! Perhaps this should be read in the spirit intended, that is, as a compliment. Thanks, Bill.
But what’s all this talk of “conventional negative stereotypes”? Whose convention, whose stereotypes? There are Muslim countries like Algeria where Muslim political parties have been denied their rightful place in government after the so-called transparent democratic elections. There are other Muslim countries, such as Turkey, where popular Muslim parties have been arbitrarily criminalised. What has the long arm and loud mouth of American foreign policy done to promote those genuine causes? Afghanistan, home of the Muslim freedom fighters of the 1980s, has been abandoned by Rambo and no longer receives American largesse. The only “dramatic evidence” supplied by Richardson in his speech is that American foreign policy will characterise Muslim countries as good, bad or ugly, depending on how they tally with the furtherance of American interests. But perhaps we are being unfair, polemical and simplistic. To move on, then, to other parts of the ambassador’s speech.
“Bangladesh was one of the first countries to support international operations in Haiti… And for that we thank you.”
And so he should. Because Haiti remains one of the most shameful and under-reported episodes in recent international affairs, subsidised and sustained by the United States. After having suffered decades under the Papa and Baby Doc dictatorships, in 1990 Haiti held its first democratic election which Jean-Bertrand Aristide won with over 67 percent of the vote. Eight months later, another military coup (thought to have been aided by the CIA) put an end to Haiti’s aspirations to democracy and self-determination.
Three years later, the US led a United Nations force which included Bangladesh to “restore democracy”. What it actually did was restore the status quo, providing the generals with asylum and other protection and effectively neutralising Aristide. The economic policies for which Aristide was elected were jettisoned. The IMF and World Bank suits swept in, structural adjustment followed, which the Haitians referred to as “the death plan” because of its effect on the peasant economy. The US Army confiscated 160,000 pages of documents from Haitian army headquarters and still refuses to return these as some of them provide evidence of US involvement in the 1991 coup. Well may Richardson thank Bangladesh.
“On a global scale, Bangladesh continues to play a leading role in the United Nations.”
As a beneficiary of the United Nations´ development largesse, Bangladesh can always be expected to play an active role in supporting a strong UN system, but this can hardly be said of the US. Aside from the US’s well-publicised efforts to make the UN toe the line to US dictates in return for coughing up its arrears to the organisation, a random look at recent performances indicate that it is the US which is playing the “leading role” in undermining the United Nations.
For the fourth year running, the United Nations has passed a motion condemning the US embargo of Cuba. In 1997, the vote was 117 votes to three. The countries against were the US, Uzbekistan and Israel. Fourteen out of 15 members of the UN Security Council voted against the US veto when Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s name came up for renewed tenure.
So, what grounds does Bill Richardson have to praise Bangladesh for its exemplary contribution to the United Nations, coming from a country which is against the UN consensus, in these random examples, of 117 to 3 and 14 to 1? How can such a country proceed with any credibility to praise another? The answer is simple. If you think you’re in control, you can say what you want.
“Throughout Bangladesh’s proud history, from the first days of independence to the modern-day challenges of making democracy work, America has stood by your side.”
Credit Richardson’s speechwriter for meticulous historical research. For it was before the “first days of independence”, with Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, that the US had steadfastly supported the Pakistani military junta. Pakistan at the time was seen as an important broker in the Sino-American detente and the troublesome disturbances in East Pakistan were shabbily down-graded to an “internal affair” beyond the purview of international involvement.
There are doubts, however, that the US has been a consistent supporter of Bangladesh throughout its history. For one, in 1974 Washington DC´s suspension of much-needed food relief to a vulnerable Bangladesh contributed to the terrible famine of that year. All because Bangladesh was impertinent enough to continue exporting jute to the much-hated Cuba, a hate that the American foreign policy incredibly continues to nurture till today.
“The great Nobel prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore spoke of that future [of Bangladesh] at the beginning of the century…”
There’s the old chestnut, dear to all foreigners who wish to ingratiate themselves to Bangladeshis. Yes, the quote from Tagore. But one wonders if the speechwriter was aware that the poet’s pride in Bengal was not just that of a spiritual guru. It was as much political, as seen in his renunciation of the knighthood conferred on him by George V in protest of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. It can only be hoped that if Tagore was listening, he would have been tickled by cut-and-paste attempts like this to dignify diplomatic twaddle with his work.
Lest this write-up be perceived as an exclusive exercise in America-bashing, let it be said that if Burkina Faso were to behave as a loutish world power, Ouagadougou too would be subject to similar criticism. Being a world power carries with it the responsibilities to act like one.
One would welcome the support of the US to strengthen human rights in Bangladesh, but pause to consider US complicity with military dictatorships that have flagrantly abused human rights throughout the last 50 years. We look forward to further direct investment by American corporations, which Bill Richardson suggests may top USD one billion by the year 2000, yet we wonder about the redistributive potential and environmental impact of capital-intensive investment. We appreciate US support for child rights but wonder about the Iraqi children who now suffer from a six-fold increase in the incidence of leukaemia following American-led use of uranium-tipped bombs during the Gulf War.
To protest the fiction that it promotes so prodigiously, and its general poor taste, we may return Richardson’s speech to him with the necessary corrections and suggestions based on fact. Perhaps in the comfort of his home back in New York, the good envoy will find the time to peruse his speech and consider how to be less patronising and more history-bound the next time around.
It was nice having you here, Sir. Do come again.