Vol. 5 Num 27 Wed. June 23, 2004  

Bottom line
Why did Bangladesh lose the OIC race?

Bangladesh joined the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1974. It is the second largest inter-governmental organisation after the United Nations. It consists of 56 member-states with 4 observer countries, spread over Asia, and Africa. OIC headquarters are located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The Secretary General, who is the chief executive of the organisation, is elected for four years and cannot be elected for more than two consecutive terms. The Secretary General puts into practice the decisions that are taken during the OIC summits and foreign ministers meetings. The Secretary General also guides and assists activities of secondary organs and committees of the OIC. The Secretary General is assisted by four Assistant Secretaries General (ASG) and in the past, Bangladesh was able to secure one of these ASG posts twice.

Since its membership, Bangladesh has nominated its candidates four times to secure the top job of the organisation. As the consensus of the 56 members could not be arrived at for its proposed nominations, three times Bangladesh had to withdraw its candidates.

For the first time, in 1979, Bangladesh proposed its candidate former President Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury. Pakistan, at the same time, put up its own candidate Ghulam Ishaq Khan ( ater served as President of Pakistan). Since two South Asian countries could not arrive at an agreement, the post went to a Tunisian, Habib Chatti. The second time, Bangladesh nominated its former Foreign Minister A.R.S Doha, and the third time it put up its former Foreign Secretary and Speaker Humayun Rasheed Choudhury. Both the candidates were later withdrawn as sufficient support was not obtained for them.

This time Bangladesh came first on the scene proposing its candidate. Subsequently, Malaysia and Turkey proposed their candidates and the dynamics of the strength of the contestants changed. Although the Secretary General has been appointed through consensus in previous occasions, this time no one was willing to withdraw its candidates.

Ultimately Turkey proposed that a secret ballot might be the way in selecting the Secretary General to resolve the impasse and a vote was taken for the first time since its inception in 1969. Turkey won handsomely with 32 votes, while candidates of Bangladesh and Malaysia received 12 votes each. It is noted that Malaysia is the current chairperson of the OIC.

Turkish successful candidate is Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (61 years). In the past, he was involved in the activities of the OIC. He served as the Director General of Islamic Conference Organisation Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), Istanbul, Turkey in 1980. He also served as the Secretary of the Islamic Conference Organisation International Commission for the Preservation of Islamic Cultural Heritage (ICPICH), Istanbul, for seven years (1983-2000). He received many honours including medals from Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, and Iran for his contribution to Islamic history and heritage. He speaks four foreign languages: Arabic, Persian, French, and English.

Why did Bangladesh lose the race?
First, in the past, Bangladesh candidates failed to get elected to the top position in the international organisations. For example, Bangladesh put up its candidates for the top job of the UN Common Fund, FAO (Food & Agriculture Organisation) and the Commonwealth, but the candidates were unsuccessful.

It is not that Bangladesh candidates are not competent, but when voting takes place, it is the overall country's standing and the regional or global environment that play an important role during voting. It is in some ways comparable to domestic politics in the country. It is not the strength of the candidate who contests the election from a constituency, but from which party he or she contests that is important to voters.

Bangladesh could not secure the top position of the OIC three times earlier, although it was keen to obtain the position. This being the case, Bangladesh naturally knew that it was placed in a difficult position to secure the post given the contestants from Turkey and Malaysia.

Second, ordinarily in the international top job, the winning candidate tends to be either widely known for his or her contribution to the organisation, or the candidate is publicly supported by influential members of the organisation. It has been seen that a candidate must represent the country repeatedly in the organisation so that the candidate is known and is widely respected. Lobbying helps, but if the candidate is not widely known among its members, it does not ultimately cut ice in the diplomatic world.

Third, geographical rotation of an international post plays a significant part in election. In the past, candidates from Africa, Arab countries, South Asia, and South East Asia occupied the post. In the OIC, Malaysia (South East Asia), Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, Pakistan (South Asia), Niger, and Morocco (Africa) held the post of the Secretary General from 1970 until this date. Turkey was left out. Turkey probably canvassed that its candidate was well placed in the context of geographical rotation.

Fourth, Turkey's strategic location helped it to win votes. Turkey is a bridge between the Middle East and Europe. It is an active member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Given the prevailing turmoil in the Middle East, many members of the OIC imagine that Turkey, a neighbour of Iraq, Syria, and Iran, will be able to play a meaningful role for the OIC with respect to Middle East issues. Furthermore, Turkey has maintained good diplomatic and strategic relations with Israel (Egypt and Jordan also have diplomatic relations with Israel). Given the geo-political advantage of Turkey, it was perceived that the role of the Turkish Secretary General might be a useful "go-between" between Israeli-Palestinians and in stabilising the volatile situation in Iraq.

Finally, commitment to a candidate by a country is often illusory in diplomacy. A country's stand changes with the changing situation in the regional and global world. Secret ballot often offers an escape to alter a country's position at the last minute.

Diplomatic experience demonstrates that a commitment, even written, cannot be fully relied upon. In the polite but wily diplomatic world, it is not uncommon that a country may change its position at the time of its voting, despite its previous commitment.

Bangladesh has had its share of failures in securing top positions in international organisations irrespective of the government of political persuasion in Dhaka. Bangladesh cannot ignore its inherent limitations. It is neither an economic nor a military power. It is a small-sized country and its current political instability appears to be a negative asset to its standing. Unless major political parties get their act together, foreign policy of the country may not be as effective as could be.

Since the country's strength is involved, it is not the candidate who is totally counted in international arena. Bangladesh may put forward very good candidates, yet they may fail to secure the position. The bottom line is not what Bangladesh thinks of itself, but how other countries perceive the strength and standing of Bangladesh. It is what others think of Bangladesh that counts in the diplomatic world.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.