To the signatories to the recent Open Letter on Professor Yunus
The Open Letter on Professor Yunus was an act that militated against ethics and against the norms of political behaviour – writes Syed Badrul Ahsan.
When the 170-plus global personalities decided to send what they called an open letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and at the same time have it carried as an ad in newspapers, they did not quite seem to realise that such an act was a deliberate move aimed at humiliating not only Bangladesh’s leader but also the nation she happened to govern. The language employed in the letter is not the language in which a head of government is addressed.
We speak of the Nobel Laureates as well as others who recently thought it fit to speak up in defence of Professor Muhammad Yunus, who has of late been mired in legal complexities in Bangladesh. His travails apart, there is little question that Professor Yunus, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2006, is a widely respected figure in Bangladesh. His contributions in terms of popularising micro-credit through the Grameen Bank remain significant landmarks in Bangladesh’s social landscape.
That said, the problem where the letter by the 170-plus individuals in his defence is concerned is that these individuals have through their missive sought to put the government of Sheikh Hasina under pressure in a way that is not only unseemly but a deviation from diplomatic as well as political norms. Indeed, the tone of the letter, as its contents make clear, are not only shocking but outrageous as well. The letter writers talk down to the Prime Minister of a sovereign state in defence of an individual who happens to be battling some legal problems relating to his financial affairs.
The letter writers have asked Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to have the ongoing court proceedings against Professor Yunus immediately suspended. They have suggested that the charges laid at his door be reviewed by a panel of impartial judges. For good measure, they have also made it known that as part of the review some internationally recognised experts should be brought on board. They go on to tell the Prime Minister:
‘We are confident that any thorough review of the anti-corruption and labour law cases against (Yunus) will result in his acquittal.’
They carry on, to one’s surprise, to warn Bangladesh’s leader:
‘We will join with millions of concerned citizens around the world in closely tracking how these matters are resolved in the days ahead.’
The writers of the letter probably have missed the point, which is that once a case is filed in a court of law, it is for the entire legal process to be carried through to its logical conclusion. There is no legal system anywhere in the world where a case, once it is initiated in court, can be removed from the proceedings and handed over to a ‘panel of impartial judges’, for that would be a travesty of the law. Besides, it is rather incomprehensible for a case being conducted under the normal laws of a country to be suspended and the details of it handed over for review to internationally recognised experts.
The letter is, in more ways than one, an attempt to browbeat the Bangladesh government and by extension Bangladesh’s people into genuflecting before a group of people who certainly have Professor Yunus’ welfare in mind but who nevertheless have arrogated to themselves the right to impose their views on the country’s government. It is a deviation from the rule of law. The letter writers speak of tracking matters related to issues pertaining to Professor Yunus, which in effect is a threat to the government, demanding as it does that it do as they wish or else …
The Nobel Laureates and others who have affixed their signatures to the letter were clearly driven by, besides the Yunus matter, other issues which at this point Bangladesh’s government and people are busy trying to handle to the satisfaction of all. The letter writers give themselves away when they bring into their defence of Professor Yunus the question of the forthcoming general election in Bangladesh. Note their words:
‘We believe it is of the utmost importance that the upcoming national election be free and fair . . .’
The incongruity is not to be mistaken. In Bangladesh, the objective behind the letter is hardly to be missed, for a palpable intent is there of ensuring that the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is shown the door through the election, scheduled for January next year. Suddenly the idea appears to be not of a fair election but one that will push the present ruling dispensation from power. The worrying question here is one of why the writers of the letter have chosen to link the election to the Yunus case. Propriety and political sagacity were clearly not at work. To hardly anyone’s surprise, many among the men and women who have written that letter happen to be individuals who have never concealed their dislike of the present government in Bangladesh.
That is sad, not for those who have read the letter, but for the writers of the letter themselves. Their failure to understand that such a public condemnation of the Bangladesh government would cause a backlash is regrettable. Bangladesh’s people, always a nation proud of their heritage, are appalled at the tone and contents of the letter. More importantly, questions are being raised in the country as to whether these letter writers have in the past despatched similar open letters to other heads of government on issues which have exercised public minds across the globe. Observe these queries:
*Did these global personalities ever despatch an open letter to any President of the United States demanding that those imprisoned without charge and without trial in Guantanamo for decades be freed?
*Did these illustrious individuals write to the US President and the British Prime Minister in 2003, asking them to desist from invading for no good reason the independent nation of Iraq, subjecting Saddam Hussein to a farce of a trial and sending him to the gallows?
*Have these letter writers deemed it at all necessary to send an open missive to the Pakistan authorities demanding that the harassment of former Prime Minister Imran Khan be stopped, that the 150-plus cases against him be dropped and that he be freed from detention?
*Given that the writers of the letter consider themselves to be believers in the rule of law, have they ever thought of writing to the US and Canadian authorities to ask why two convicted assassins of Bangladesh’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman have been permitted sanctuary in these two countries despite knowing of their macabre role in August 1975?
*Was such a letter sent to former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia demanding that punitive action be taken against the activists of her political coalition who went on a rampage against Awami League supporters and members of the minority Hindu community immediately after the coalition won the general election in October 2001?
*Will these ladies and gentlemen send an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and have it carried as an ad in western newspapers demanding that all legal proceedings against Alexei Navalny be dropped and that he be allowed to go free?
*And where have these letter writers been on the Julian Assange episode? Have they prepared and made public any open letter to the UK and US authorities asking that, in the interest of media freedom, Assange be released to pursue his vocation?
*How many of these letter writers have demanded that the Myanmar military junta withdraw all charges against the incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi and have her assume her rightful position as Myanmar’s elected leader? Have they considered penning an open leader to the junta to ask that the million-plus Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh be taken back to their homes in Rakhine state in Myanmar?
*For years, journalists have been languishing in prison in Egypt. Was any open letter soliciting their freedom ever sent to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi?
*The journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a few years ago. Did these Nobel Laureates and global leaders write to the Saudi government and ask that the truth behind the tragedy be investigated and the guilty punished?
*No open letter was sent to the Sri Lankan authorities to demand that the persecution of the Tamil minority following the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan army in 2009 be put to an end and those responsible for the miseries of the Tamils be brought to justice.
Hypocrisy is no substitute for good judgment. The individuals who wrote that letter to the Bangladesh Prime Minister clearly failed in making their concerns about Professor Yunus known to the government through discreet diplomatic means. That they deliberately chose to go public with their worries about Bangladesh’s Nobel Laureate was a strategy aimed at putting Bangladesh in the dock before the world.
It was in less than good taste, for Bangladesh is not a banana republic. While one expects the law to ensure justice for Professor Yunus, expects his reputation to emerge intact from the legal quagmire he is in, one knows only too well that a self-respecting country, which Bangladesh surely is, will not be willing to have powerful individuals from around the world breathing down its neck over issues that only its own legal and constitutional system can and will resolve.
The 170-plus global personalities ought to have thought better than taking upon themselves the curious and unwelcome task of trying to bring the Bangladesh government to heel on an issue relating to an individual. The stratagem has predictably not worked.
The writer Syed Badrul Ahsan is a London-based journalist, author and analyst of politics and diplomacy.