Diplomatic Non-Code of Conduct

Murari Sharma

Bhagirath Basnet[*]

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently circulated the Diplomatic Code of Conduct for diplomats, and it will mainly affect the Kathmandu-based diplomats if it is at all implemented. However, if experience is any guide, the code will be observed more in its breach than in its respect.

Evidently, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, implemented from 1964, regulates diplomatic conduct across nations. Before this, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Convention regarding Diplomatic Officers of 1928 singed in Havana had offered the ground rules for diplomatic conduct. Consular staff who carry out support functions are covered by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1964 that offers fewer immunities and privileges.

Diplomats frequently received bad treatment from the host country until the British parliament accorded diplomatic immunities to foreign ambassadors in 1709, after the Russian envoy was treated badly in London. Later other European countries also offered similar protections to diplomats. Such protections survived World War I and II, although they have been breached in many instances.

In old times, envoys were very senior persons on a visit to foreign capitals with a political message from their sovereign and used to have the opportunity to convey the message directly to their master’s counterpart. They came with a small staff and were in foreign capitals for a few days. With the rise of global commerce and permanent diplomatic missions, that has changed. Several levels of diplomatic staff in large numbers are posted in diplomatic missions to handle different aspects of relations rendering management of diplomatic relations infinitely more complex.

The Vienna Convention has been conceived and agreed to manage such complex diplomatic relations. It grants diplomats freedom from prosecution and from violation of diplomatic person and property. Diplomats also get some of the privileges that are not available to the host country’s citizens such as duty-free stuffs and tax-fee income. Host countries may extend more privileges, immunities if they wish; some of them offer such extras out of politeness or lack of system, and others do so based on their special relations or on reciprocity.

Meeting host country officials to resolve problems between the two countries is one of the important functions of diplomats. Generally, quite strict protocols are maintained for such meetings. As a result, ambassadors get to meet senior ministers and officials only informally at some diplomatic or social functions, such as group meetings or national day receptions. Meeting these senior policy makers is a rare exception, and that often tends to be unpleasant, such as expulsion or warning.

Therefore, ambassadors have to contend with junior officials and junior ministers. For example, ambassadors in Britain do not get an appointment to meet the foreign secretary, let alone prime minister. In the United States, too, foreign ambassadors do not get to meet the secretary of state. Even in many Asian and Latin American countries, such diplomatic protocols and restrictions are largely observed.

Of course, there are always exceptions. First, although all ambassadors are theoretically equal in the sense that they represent their country, they are unequal in the real world. The sending country’s political power and economic weight always count in diplomatic access. During the cold war, the Soviet and American ambassadors in Moscow and Washington had access to foreign ministers. Second, those ambassadors who personally know the senior ministers and head of state or government get special favors, privately.

The Kathmandu-based diplomats are the lucky ones who enjoy not only generous immunities and substantial privileges but also unfettered access to senior people without reciprocity or special relations. Crimes committed by foreign diplomats get seldom investigated, and these representatives are seldom held accountable for breaching host country law and rules. Diplomats also enjoy unfettered access to senior policy-makers and freedom to criticize the host government, something their counterparts in other nations cannot even contemplate.

For instance, ambassadors in Kathmandu can literally have breakfast with the foreign minister, lunch with the prime minister and dinner with the head of state in the course of the same day, even when there is no high level mission visiting Nepal. They can call the heads of state and government directly and set up appointments. Nepali policy makers eagerly wait for the opportunity to meet, dine and chat with ambassadors.

The interest in doing so is often personal and mutual. Nepali policy makers want foreign trips for themselves, new vehicles and equipment for their offices and scholarships and visas for their children and supporters. Envoys have to send periodic reports to their capitals, and they want to get it right from the horse’s mouth because they are venal and accessible. And they enjoy this privilege.

In this situation, there is no way to know who is doing what and who saying and committing what to which ambassador by what motive. Each minister says what he likes and participates in activities that he likes. For instance, Nepal professes one-China policy but some minister might be participating in a pro-Tibet program or in Taiwan’s national day reception. One minister might commit to joining the International Criminal Court treaty in one forum, another minister might be arguing against joining the treaty in another forum. This has rendered managing Nepal’s foreign relations extremely difficult.

Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been charged with the management of foreign relations and diplomacy under the Rules of Business Allocation, it has not been able to carry out its functions properly. There are mainly two reasons for this.

First, the ministry does not have the capacity and will to carry out its functions effectively. On the one hand, it has a shortage of resources and specialist skills such as in trade, investment, disarmament, immigration, international laws, languages, etc. On the other, when it has those skills and resources, it seldom utilizes them optimally. A Russian language expert is seldom posted to Moscow. And it lacks logistics – vehicles and equipment for issuing machine readable passports, for instance, — to cover all areas of activities.

Second, foreign affairs get little importance in Nepal’s scheme of things. Influential politicians opt for finance, home and development ministries from where they can nurture their constituencies, build political support and enrich personally. The foreign ministry, therefore, is often headed by an ineffectual senior minister or junior minister who cannot influence their cabinet colleagues to abide by the Rules of Business Allocation and to bring necessary resources to the ministry and its missions abroad to make them effective. Frequent changes in government does not help the ministry either.

The failure of the diplomatic code of conduct to stick is a case in point. The basic code of conduct is already mentioned in the Rules of Business Allocation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has elaborated on them in detail and tried to implement it many times. The focus in them has been on coordinating Nepal’s foreign policy position and keeping the Foreign Ministry in the loop. But that simple goal has escaped the ministry’s grasp so far.

For instance, the government approved a code of conduct when I was Foreign Secretary from 1997-2000 and the Foreign Ministry tried to implement it, but ministers did not follow the rules. It also tried to implement a similar code under the King Gyanendra regime and later in 2009, again without success. Every time, senior Nepali officials and foreign diplomats observed the code more in its breach than in its respect. For a few days, they would abide by the new provisions and then revert to their old habit. It seems that they treat such provisions as impediments to their desire to use public office for private gains without foreign ministry officials knowing about it.

The latest code of conduct should not face the fate of its predecessors, because there is a genuine reason to coordinate foreign policy position across the government. Nepal faces a very sensitive geopolitical situation in its neighborhood and it can serve its interests best by deploying smart foreign policy and diplomacy, which should not be used as a tool for promoting private gains of individual leaders at the cost of the nation.

Hopefully, this time the code will prove more than an empty accomplishment in paper of the outgoing government.  It will be well if Nepali political and bureaucratic leaders show more seriousness this time and do not turn the code into a non-code of conduct, as they have done in the past. Nepal’s geopolitical sensitivity and vulnerability requires seriousness in the management of its foreign relations and diplomacy.


23 August 2011

(Published in The Reporter on 11 September 2011edited by Yuva Raj Ghimire)

See: http://www.thereporter.com.np/features/opinion

[*] Mr Sharma and Mr. Basnet are former ambassadors of Nepal.


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