Thursday, April 24, 2014
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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 counselor 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.

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  1. CommentedM Patel

    Please provide data supporting your claim that abuse & exploitation of domestic worker is the norm in India. The truth is that in Mumbai, Significant section of Domestic help is legal, organized, & member of linguistic majority group. On the other hand, In NYC, Significant section of Domestic help is illegal, non-union, & a foreigner.

  2. CommentedM Patel

    Ian's otherwise tolerable article ended with a racist & sweeping indictment of a large swath of Indian population. It would be far more accurate to say that Khobragade adopted the custom of USA where a significant section of domestic workers are underpaid illegal aliens.
    Is Ian upholding age old churchillian tradition of racism & bigotry ?
    Quotes attributed to Churchil “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

  3. Commentedp k

    Mr. Baruma has got it wrong. It is the US behaving badly in this case. Strip and cavity search of the diplomat for this charge IS excessive. The outcry if it were a White foreign diplomat being subjected to this act in India would have been even louder, with Whites in unison condemning it - Brown people on the other hand have been deracinated sufficiently so that many appear to support what was done in custody; something akin to legalized rape.

    The Indian reaction was not fiercer than that of Russia. There was no biblical proportionality in the response in India. US diplomats were indeed stripped of special privileges which the US does not reciprocate to Indian diplomats. The road barricades that were removed had been unilaterally placed by the US consulate in Delhi to make it convenient for their personal to visit the consulate-run private business/club across the street - incidentally an untaxed and illegal prerogative that was appropriately taken away. The rhetorical "threats" to arrest same-sex partners were made by one Indian opposition politician to point out the hypocrisy of the excuse to blindly follow the rule book when carrying out the strip/cavity searches. It was never acted upon by the authorities there, and there was no likelihood of this ever happening even domestically to Indian homosexuals.

    Adding to the anger in India was the manner in which the Richards family was spirited away and the ridiculous aspersions on the Indian legal system that were cast by the politically ambitious Mr. Bharara. The racist posts by the wife of the expelled US diplomat who issued the visas to the Richards only underscore the unprofessional behavior of some in the US diplomatic corps - American exceptionalism in action!

    If the charge that the maid was exploited was true, expelling the diplomat would have been warranted and the free and raucous Indian media would have gone to town with the story . However, due to misplaced sanctimony and, let's be frank, deep set racism/Uncle Tom opportunism that came together to humiliate this diplomat (and, symbolically, the nation that she served), the US has deeply damaged diplomatic relations with a country that is very pro-American in a part of the world ordinarily deeply hostile to the US. Nice going!

  4. Commentedankit jain

    And while you are on the subject of diplomatic immunity, why dont you talk about the American "consular officer" Allen davis who murdered two people in pakistan and got away without even a trial and must be living a good life back in US. Definitely the world belongs to those who have power, american society does not need to reflect upon what kind of society it is, People like you will never blame these crimes on the american public while generalizing the actions of one diplomat and reaching conclusions about a nation of 1.2 billion people.

  5. CommentedJagan Rampal

    The diplomatic immunity is a shield for the diplomats who are tasked with projecting the viewpoints of the nations that they represent, in places where (maybe) those viewpoints may not be palatable. To wield it as a license for committing crimes is certainly not the deigned purpose.
    Equally distasteful is for the host nation to target the diplomats of another country to make some kind of statement, because diplomats make nice high-visibility dart-boards.
    Many in India, including most of the media commentators believe that the Indian Consular officer's arrest methodology falls in the second category. The merits of the actual case has received little attention.

    But in the high decibels of blame and counter blames, three points seem to have have been missed.
    1. Law of proportionality in law enforcement. You can't say there is one Standard Operating Procedure for all, whether you have been caught picking your nose, or were about to hurt someone grievously.
    2. Law enforcement is case by case. You can't apportion guilt to someone because the Indians by cultural inclination, believe in some kind of social pecking order. And to "evacuate" some Indians from India, under some preconceived impressions; well, there could be wiser ways in diplomacy.
    3. The crux of the diplomatic machinery is to improve the relations between the nations and not subvert them. In the case of Indian Consular officer, what were the the diplomats on either side trying?

    Of course, there is a lot to be desired in the quality of diplomats that straddle the world today, whether from one country or another. And perhaps in the polity too.



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