By Ian Buruma
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 neighbours 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 apologised 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 behaviour 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 apologised. 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 behaviour 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.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.
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