Diplomats Behaving Badly

NEW YORK – Diplomats, normally discreet figures who rarely court publicity, have been in the news a lot lately, for all the wrong reasons. Two recent arrests of diplomats by their host countries have put a spotlight on the justification for, and limits of, the immunity from local law that such officials typically enjoy.

In the first case, Dmitri Borodin, the minister councilor at the Russian embassy in The Hague, was arrested late one night in October of last year, after neighbors alerted the Dutch police that Borodin, allegedly in a drunken state, was beating his two small children. He was handcuffed in his own home and taken to the police station.

According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats cannot be prosecuted according to a host country’s laws. So Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately demanded an official apology from the Dutch government for ignoring Borodin’s diplomatic immunity. The rabble-rousing Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky called on his followers to smash the windows of the Dutch embassy in Moscow. A week later, a Dutch diplomat in Moscow was beaten up at his home by armed thugs (no connection between the two cases has been proved).

The timing of all of this was awkward. The Dutch king, Willem Alexander, was about to visit Russia to celebrate the two countries’ friendly relations in the so-called “Netherlands-Russia Year.” The Dutch foreign minister duly apologized to Russia for the conduct of his country’s police, and Borodin was recalled to Moscow.

Then, in December, the New York City police arrested an Indian consular official, Devyani Khobragade, for paying a domestic worker less than the minimum wage in the United States and for falsifying the worker’s visa application. Because consular officials do not enjoy the same degree of immunity as higher-ranking diplomats, the police were acting within their authority, even if their methods – strip-searching Khobragade, for example – might be considered excessive.

The reaction in India, however, was much fiercer than in Russia. Outrage was voiced in the press. Apologies were demanded. Demonstrations were held. US diplomats were stripped of customary privileges. Threats were made to arrest same-sex partners of US diplomats, because Indian law criminalizes homosexuality.

All of this might seem over the top and childish. But, because diplomats are their countries’ official representatives abroad, their symbolic function is much more important than their individual personalities. They are like national flags: insult them, and you insult the “nation.” And when it comes to preserving national “face,” Russia and India are perhaps touchier than most countries; Russia has always felt looked down upon by western European powers, and India is still reckoning with a legacy of colonial humiliation.

A writer for the Times of India expressed Indians’ sensitivity succinctly: “The sad truth is that India is now viewed abroad as a third-rate banana republic.” Whether or not this is true is beside the point. Many Indians, especially among the Delhi elite, believe it. The behavior of the New York City police played into their deepest fears.

One of the most interesting aspects of these two diplomatic incidents is what it tells us about the new Russian and Indian elite. Diplomats have always represented the face of their country, but their own faces have changed.

In the past, diplomats did not actually represent nation-states, but royal courts (in most monarchies this is still officially the case). As a result, European diplomats, for example, were mostly aristocrats, who all spoke French to one another.

Diplomatic incidents often had to do with the relative status of kings and queens. One famous incident in the late eighteenth century was Lord Macartney’s British mission to the Imperial Court of China. Macartney refused to conform to Chinese imperial protocol by declining to kowtow to the emperor, because he was not required to do the same to his own sovereign. This, too, was very much a case of “keeping face”: the Chinese expected tribute; the British lord insisted on the equal status of his king. As a result, the mission broke down.

Diplomatic immunity from local prosecution was an idea that sprang directly from another incident, almost a century earlier, involving the arrest of a Russian aristocrat, Andrey Matveyev, who represented Peter the Great in London. Matveyev was detained and roughed up by bailiffs who demanded money from him. The Russians complained. The British apologized. And the British parliament enacted a new law protecting diplomats from suffering similar treatment in the future.

Borodin and Khobragade are not aristocrats. Far from it. They represent a very different age, which one is tempted to call democratic, even if Russia today is more like a soft dictatorship. Perhaps Borodin was just enjoying a rare night out and is normally an abstemious man, but his thuggish behavior is perhaps not entirely atypical of a new class of Russians that has accumulated a great deal of money and power since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Khobragade’s case is more interesting. She was born into the Dalit caste, the “untouchables,” who in former times would never have gotten anywhere near the elite, except to sweep their floors. Since Indian independence, the government has done much to improve the Dalits’ status, and the deputy consul general is one of the beneficiaries of this policy. She is a member of the new Indian elite, increasingly wealthy and proud to represent a rising power in the world.

If the allegations that Khobragade systematically underpaid her domestic worker are true, this shows how fully she has adopted the customs of the class to which she has risen. In all the Indian protests about the terrible blow dealt by the Americans to Indian self-esteem, only a few mentioned the habitual exploitation of the poorer classes. As with their politicians, a country’s people, it seems, often have the diplomats they deserve.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

Related article on Facts & Arts. Please click the title to proceed to it.

The Return of the Ugly American

by Shashi TharoorAdded 06.01.2014
NEW DELHI – Nearly a month after American authorities arrested India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, outside her children’s school and charged her with paying her Indian domestic worker a salary below the minimum wage,...




     

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 12.07.2018
The cabinet members who resigned this week apparently feared that politics is taking May toward a “soft Brexit,” their worst of all possible worlds........“soft Brexit,” maintains the status quo, more or less, letting Europeans freely circulate into British labor markets and allowing European firms to operate easily in the UK. The problem with “soft Brexit” is that it raises questions about why the UK is leaving at all, since it will still have the same obligations to Europe as before, it just won’t have a voice when the remaining 27 members of the European Union meet to make decisions.
Added 12.07.2018
One study on the 2010 World Cup found that there was a 37.5% rise in admission rates across 15 accident and emergency departments on England match days........Examining reports of domestic abuse in Lancashire (a county of approximately 1.5m people in Northern England), across the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup tournaments, we discovered a 26% increase in reports of domestic abuse when England won or drew, and a 38% increase when England lost. Reports were also more frequent on weekends, and reached their peak when England exited the tournament.
Added 10.07.2018
If, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the US government, rather than arguing for Chinese economic opening, had prohibited any US company from investing there, China’s rise would have been significantly delayed, though not permanently prevented. Because that did not happen, China’s rise is now self-sustaining. A huge and increasingly affluent domestic market will make exports less vital to growth.
Added 10.07.2018
Comparing today’s demagogues with Adolf Hitler is almost always unwise. Such alarmism tends to trivialize the actual horrors of the Nazi regime, and distracts attention from our own political problems. But if alarmism is counterproductive, the question remains: At what point are democracies truly in danger? What was unimaginable only a few years ago – a US president insulting democratic allies and praising dictators, or calling the free press “enemies of the people,” or locking up refugees and taking away their children – has become almost normal now. When will it be too late to sound the alarm?
Added 09.07.2018
In view of such actions, expectations for Trump’s behavior at the upcoming summit have gone from prickly to dangerous. The sense of foreboding has been heightened by the announcement that, just four days after the summit ends, Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. The nightmare scenario is easy to imagine: Trump lays bare NATO’s fractures, including by questioning mutual defense, before selling his allies down the river by publicly embracing Putin. But this does not need to be the outcome.
Added 09.07.2018
After 2027 (or maybe even 2025, only 7 years from now), the number of EVs will rapidly accelerate, as virtually all new vehicles bought will be electric (an effect of rapidly falling battery and other component costs and of the fuel for electric cars being essentially free; you can power one off your rooftop solar array).
Added 03.07.2018
Most pundits interpret Trump’s outbursts as playing to his political base, or preening for the cameras, or blustering for the sake of striking future deals. We take a different view. In line with many of America’s renowned mental-health experts, we believe that Trump suffers from several psychological pathologies that render him a clear and present danger to the world.
Added 03.07.2018
In the United Kingdom, Brexit looms large, with everyone from government ministers to tabloid newspapers frothing daily about the deal that will be struck with the European Union and the effects that it will have. But the EU faces too many pressing challenges to be obsessing about Britain. The UK’s concern is understandable: evidence is mounting of the likely damage a departure from the single market and customs union will do to the UK economy. According to new research from the Centre for European Reform, the UK economy is already 2.1% smaller than it would have been had voters chosen to remain. The hit to public finances totals £440 million ($579 million) per week.
Added 26.06.2018
Nowadays, Britain’s words and actions on the world stage are so at odds with its values that one must wonder what has happened to the country. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, British foreign policy seems to have all but collapsed – and even to have disowned its past and its governing ideas. Worse, this has coincided with the emergence of US President Donald Trump’s erratic administration, which is pursuing goals that are completely detached from those of Britain – and of Europe generally. 
Added 26.06.2018
With each passing day, it becomes increasingly evident that US President Donald Trump’s administration cares less about economics and more about the aggressive exercise of political power. This is obviously a source of enormous frustration for those of us who practice the art and science of economics. But by now, the verdict is self-evident: Trump and his team continue to flaunt virtually every principle of conventional economics.
Added 26.06.2018
The sights and sounds of Central American children being ripped from their parents by US Border Patrol officers have, by now, spread across the globe. The experience has been traumatizing to its victims and deeply painful to watch. It has also done incalculable damage to the very idea of America. This is June when we are supposed to be celebrating "Immigrant Heritage Month". Each year, I have taken this opportunity to recall my family's immigrant story - the opportunity and freedom they sought, the hardships they endured, and the remarkable progress they made in just one generation. 
Added 24.06.2018
State terrorism comes in many forms, but one of its most cruel and revolting expressions is when it is aimed at children. Even though U.S. President Donald Trump backed down in the face of a scathing political and public outcry and ended his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, make no mistake: His actions were and remain a form of terrorism.
Added 22.06.2018
It is now clear that the twenty-first century is ushering in a new world order. As uncertainty and instability associated with that process spread around the globe, the West has responded with either timidity or nostalgia for older forms of nationalism that failed in the past and certainly will not work now. Even to the most inveterate optimist, the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month was proof that the geopolitical West is breaking up and losing its global significance, and that the great destroyer of that American-created and American-led order is none other than the US president. To be sure, Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of the West’s disintegration. But he is accelerating the process dramatically.
Added 20.06.2018
Sessions quoted a line written by the apostle Paul to a small community of Christians living in Rome around 55AD to defend the Department of Justice’s approach. He said: "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Sessions used the Bible because one of the most vocal opponents of the crackdown on asylum cases has been the Catholic Church. It’s no surprise that Sessions appealed to Romans chapter 13 verse 1 in response: not only did he hope to undermine Catholic authority by using the Bible against them, he cited a statement so broad that one might use it to defend anything a government does, good or bad. Picture below St Paul writing his epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons.
Added 19.06.2018
 

I find it exceptionally irritating when I hear liberals worry about whether Israel will be able to remain a "Jewish and Democratic State" if it retains control of occupied Palestinian lands.

Added 18.06.2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Added 14.06.2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Added 12.06.2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Added 12.06.2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?