Taranco succeeded, politicians failed
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon always had interest in Bangladesh for its remarkable achievements in economic and social sectors. When the political situation started to become confrontational he sent his Under Secretary General Oscar Fernandez Taranco in December 2012 to assess the situation and speak to the concerned parties.
Taranco returned to Dhaka on 6 December 2013 leading a four-member delegation in the backdrop of "oborodh" (shutdown) and serious street violence. He carried a "strong message" from Ban Ki-moon for both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Taranco's "political mission" mandate was to try and persuade the opposing political parties to come to an agreement to hold elections in a "free, fair, inclusive and credible" manner. The Government however, did not accept his request to meet President Abdul Hamid and Army Chief General Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan.
Taranco quickly identified that ego and hardened positions of the two parties were the main hurdles towards any solution.
After hectic efforts Taranco eventually succeeded in getting the senior leaders of Awami League and BNP to sit across the table on 10 December, and again on 11 December. The leaders assured Taranco that they will continue to talk. Taranco was "happy" with the development.
But his happiness turned into dismay when he saw the nature of discussions the two sides had during the two sittings. Neither side appeared to make any concession. "We sat together for the sake of sitting" remarked one AL leader, who was present in the meeting. "He (Taranco) has done his job – engaged us in talks. His mission is successful. But we are where we have been", was the comment of a BNP leader who attended the meeting. Naturally there was no progress. Taranco neither had the "carrot' nor the "stick" to use on the reticent political leaders.
What was worse, while the meetings were on, leaders from both parties continued with their attacking rhetoric. AL demanded that BNP must stop all agitation before any substantive talks. BNP vowed to continue with political programmes unless their jailed leaders were released and Sheikh Hasina resigned from the post of Prime Minister.
Before boarding the plane on 11 December Taranco addressed the eager media for the first time since his arrival. Taranco said that a solution was possible. His optimism was based on three 'ifs' -- if we've a political will…., if we've an attitude of compromise…., if we're engaged into a peaceful dialogue. This discovery is not new. For long, people from all walks of life have been calling upon the leaders to make a 'compromise' through 'dialogue'. But politicians did not have the 'will' to do so.
Taranco did not meet Sheikh Hasina before leaving Dhaka as was originally scheduled. Clearly, it indicated his frustration that the two sides were poles apart as far as the agreement was concerned.
Realising the futility of his efforts Taranco presumably briefed his boss Ban Ki-moon. It was at this stage that Ban Ki-moon called (over phone) Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 11 December. He thanked Sheikh Hasina for the cooperation extended to the UN team and hoped that peaceful elections will held under the provisions of the constitution. Obviously, Ban Ki-moon cannot ask Sheikh Hasina to go beyond the constitution to create an environment conducive for peaceful elections. United Nation's bottom line on the next elections is that it should be -- "peaceful, inclusive and credible to give voters a real choice", as enunciated by Taranco.
Taranco conducted himself like an astute UN diplomat. He was conscious that he could not leave Dhaka without some positive developments. To that extent his demarché can be termed a success. But it is the politicians who have not only failed him but also failed the nation.
If Bangladesh goes through with the one-sided elections -- there may be wider international reactions. Firstly, the election results will not be accepted by the international community. Secondly, Commonwealth may suspend Bangladesh from the organization for making a farce of the election. Zimbabwe was suspended from the organization in 2002 for human rights violation, violence and rigging in the presidential election. Thirdly, the Human Rights organizations may hold Bangladesh responsible for the polls related deaths of innocent people. Kenyan leaders were indicted by the International Criminal Court for human rights violation during the 2007 elections. Fourthly, Bangladesh may face suspension of economic and commercial facilities from US, EU and others. The implications are too distressing to contemplate.
Sadly, Bangladesh is now on international media headlines for the wrong reasons.
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.