Saturday, February 4th, 2023 02:23:56

Immunise The Diplomats

Updated: September 18, 2015 11:00 am

Much before modern diplomatic conventions were framed in 17th-century Europe, India understood the importance of ensuring that diplomatic envoys were inviolate. The kings and rulers of yesteryears emphasised that the rajdoots be treated with honour. Even free and safe passage was allowed to them when they crossed another kingdom. Indian history is replete with instances of diplomatic immunity. The ill-treatment of Raja Raja Chola’s envoys sparked the Kandalur War in 994 CE. In Central Asia, Genghis Khan’s armies insisted on the inviolability of the lives of their ambassadors—and razed entire cities to defend the principle.

There are several theories exhorting the notion of diplomatic immunity—among them, the defunct idea that an ambassador represents the body of a foreign king; the notion that an embassy is in fact foreign territory; the idea that such immunities are necessary for the smooth conduct of foreign relations. However, the naked truth behind these theories is that if one nation punishes diplomats for misconduct, there is nothing to stop the other nation from doing the same. For all practical purposes, diplomats would be at risk of becoming hostages. It has happened in Iran, Saigion, Vietnam and Cambodia in the last century.

The recent case against a Saudi Arabian diplomat accused of gang-rape and unnatural sex with two Nepalese women, filed by the Gurgaon Police may not be smooth. The horrific gang rape of two poor Nepali women by the diplomat and his friends has shaken the nation. According to police, the diplomat had kept them as sex slaves at his posh apartment in Gurgaon for over two months and brutally raped them along with his friends. The case against the diplomat comes at a delicate time for India-Saudi relations. Even though the allegations are undoubtedly serious, India is unlikely to upset the apple-cart of recently signed defence agreement with the nation. Modi’s breakout visit to the Saudi Arabia is on cards in the coming months. Saudi Arabia had extradited 26/11 plotter Abu Jundal in 2012, and a few others who were brought back covertly to India through less orthodox means. Besides, India and Saudi Arabia share cordial relations. Apart from the fact that Saudi Arabia is India’s second largest supplier of crude oil and its fourth largest trade partner (bilateral trade reached nearly $40 billion in 2014-15), it is also home to a sizeable diaspora of over 2.5 million Indians. Nepal is certainly going to cry foul, and will come down hammer and tongs on India, which will affect India-Nepal relations.

This is not the first time that we are facing such a situation. Diplomats posted to India have broken laws in the past as well. Unfortunately, all of them have got away with their crime citing immunity. This incident will go down in the long list of such occurrences where diplomats have walked free after indulging in heinous crimes.

In January 2000, the son of Senegalese ambassador to India had been accused of murdering his driver. He got away because of the immunity he enjoyed. Four Russian diplomats who rammed into a police barricade, injuring four police officers and others in the elite diplomatic enclave of Chankyapuri, also took shelter under diplomatic immunity.

A few years ago, a South African diplomat’s wife slapped a Delhi police constable at a programme of former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. No action was taken against her. Last year, three Israeli diplomats were accused of assaulting an immigration official at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. A criminal case was registered against them but they too walked scot-free free because of their diplomatic immunity. The matter of the two Italian marines charged with the murder of fishermen off Kerala coast is still hanging. On the flip side, Indian diplomats posted abroad too have been accused of violating the rules of the host country. The recent incident is the Devyani Khobragade case in New York, where she was accused of ill-treating her maid. She used her diplomatic immunity, after the government of India backed her. The recent case, in which the Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand was recalled after his maid complained of ill treatment, too is another example. However, it is evident that Indian diplomats are charged with such minor offences such as ill-treatment of menial staff.

Saudi Arabia should unilaterally waive the immunity of the diplomat. Under Sharia Law, rape is classified under Hudud cases—considered crimes against God and carries the maximum penalty. Interestingly, sodomy—for which the diplomat has been charged under Section 377 of the IPC—carries a far harsher sentence in Saudi Arabia than in India.

In a report of 2000, legal scholar Dror Ben-Asher noted: “The occasional abuse of the diplomatic immunity rules is largely offset by the continuing need for them.”

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