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Why diplomats have no right to lord it over host countries

Friday October 10 2008

Foreign Affairs Minister, Moses Wetangula. Photo/FILE

Foreign Affairs Minister, Moses Wetangula. He wrote a formal protest note following a demand by foreign envoys that ECK commissioners should step down, accusing the envoys of taking a stand. Photo/FILE 


How long will it take for the West to regard us as equals or as capable of running our own affairs?

Claude McKay (1890-1948), a black Jamaican-born political activist, novelist, essayist and poet, wrote a poem titled If we Must Die immediately after the First World War. In the poem he expressed anger over racism.

Although slavery had been abolished, whites still treated blacks as if they were of a much lower class. McKay has several messages for the black audience afraid to stand up for themselves, and the white audience afraid to accept blacks as equals.

I was reminded of the respect issue last week when Western diplomats once again poked their noses into Kenya’s internal affairs, demanding that the Electoral Commission step down.

And Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula sent a formal protest note, accusing the envoys of taking a stand “reminiscent of the colonial mindset.” He expressed outrage at “the audacious and blatant breach of protocol…”

Then there is the bickering over the destination of military hardware hijacked by pirates off the Somali coast.


The US insists it belongs to Southern Sudan and not Kenya, as claimed by the Government.

It is not lost on Kenyans either that a few months ago, Mukurwe-ini MP Kabando wa Kabando publicly declared having received a letter from the US ambassador Michael Ranneberger asking him to, among other things, “demonstrate in writing his effort and achievements in promoting peace”.

I am not saying that the ECK should not be disbanded or that the arms’ destination should not be established. But there is a process to be followed and a sovereign state to be respected.

Why should an MP explain himself in writing to a diplomat? Why should an envoy physically walk into the ECK offices with the aim of forcing the chairman to resign? Is this not supercilious effrontery based on diplomatic immunity or, as some have called it, diplomatic impunity?

The doctrine of immunity originated from the maxim that the king can do no wrong. It is an ancient aspect of international law which began with allowing messengers to travel from tribe to tribe without the fear of harm to exchange information. The emissaries were protected.

It is now codified in the two Vienna Conventions of 1961 and 1963, which give immunity to people according to their rank and the nature of their duties. The raison d’etre is, therefore, a functional objective — simply to ensure the efficient performance of the diplomatic mission’s functions.

In short, the person of a diplomat is inviolable; he cannot be subjected to any form of search, arrest or detention. Diplomats enjoy full immunity from criminal jurisdiction, but civil and administrative immunity does not extend to unofficial matters relating to immovable property, succession or professional and commercial activities.

How then should a diplomat behave? According to Mette Boritz in The Hidden Culture of Diplomat Practice, the characteristics of a diplomat include truthfulness, calm, accuracy, patience, good humour, modesty and loyalty.

He should also have self-control, an instinct for discreet flattery and a talent for making contact with people. The duties of a diplomat are to “inform, represent and negotiate.”

The problem, however, is that immunity has come to be used as an absurdly broad cover for meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state and even sleazy or criminal behaviour.

Diplomats have been caught smuggling drugs and weapons in special and inviolable diplomatic pouches meant for official documents. In 2001, it was revealed that the Dubai ambassador to London organised smuggling of cigarettes to Somalia and Sudan.

The list across countries is endless — unpaid bills, drunken driving, sex crimes and even murder — yet no reasonable person will argue that such acts are essential or the foreseeable by-product of the functioning of diplomatic duties.

In early 2005, for instance, police in Virginia, USA, arrested Salem Al-Mazrooei, a suspected paedophile who had driven a long distance to meet a 13-year-old girl. He had “met” her on the internet and promised to teach her about sex.

However, the girl was actually a police officer and he was immediately arrested. It turned out that he was a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates and, therefore, had diplomatic immunity. He was immediately released and left the country a few days later.

Here in Nairobi, on February 5, 2001, African-American Reuben Gray and son Brandon were involved in a fatal road accident on Ngecha Road with a vehicle being driven by the then head of the USAid mission in Kenya, Dirk Dijkerman.

Dijkerman was able to leave the car and called the US embassy, which sent US personnel to take him to hospital. Gray and his son were left at the scene, and were later taken by Kenyans to hospital in the back of a pick-up truck. US embassy personnel ignored and treated Gray and his son differently, mistaking them for Kenyans.

Later, UN investigations revealed that Dijkerman was coming from a party and was driving excessively fast and on the wrong side of the road. But Dijkerman had diplomatic immunity and left the country a few days later without being charged.

But this is not to say that no diplomats have had illustrious careers. Some such as US ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone hardly cared for diplomatic etiquette and walked around with a gun following threats to his life.

One newspaper ran front-page cartoons depicting him as a fat pig. When Foreign Affairs minister Ndolo Ayah called him a “racist with a slave-owner mentality,” he snapped back: “Most of the people I help are black”.

Another is British High Commissioner Edward Clay who came to Kenya in 2001 from Cyprus where he had described a local MP as “a medical monkey up a stick”. The MP, who was leading a protest march, had climbed a British radio mast.

In Kenya, Clay dismissed government spokesman Alfred Mutua as “similar to anything from Dubai”, and accused all government officials of behaving “like gluttons” and “vomiting on the shoes” of foreign donors.

The bottom line is: what will it take for us to be respected? Are we so afraid to stand up for ourselves?

Kenya is not answerable to any diplomat, irrespective of the country or organisation he represents, and an envoy’s brief does not include lording it over the host country’s citizens.