Diplomats: Privilege, and beyond

There is growing impatience in almost all countries against diplomats enjoying privileges and immunities.

On April 9 Xiang Xueqiu, wife of Peter Lescouhier Belgium’s ambassador to South Korea, went to a clothing store in Seoul. Reports indicate that she was there for about an hour and tried a number of dresses. She did not buy any and left the store. She was followed by a shop assistant who suspected that she had put on a dress from the store while she was trying them. The shop assistant stopped her to check the dress’s label. This infuriated Xiang. She went back to the store; an altercation occurred during which Xiang smacked the shop assistant on the back of her head and slapped another female employee who intervened.

The incident was captured by the store’s cctv camera. The store management put it on the social media. It went viral enraging a large number of South Koreans. Many wanted the Belgian embassy to apologise while some wanted the ambassador to be asked to leave the country. Meanwhile the South Korean police took cognisance of the matter and wanted to question Xiang. Both diplomatic immunity and Xiang’s hospitalisation prevented that.

The mainstream South Korean media picked up the issue and extensively focussed on it despite the regret expressed by the Belgian embassy. Finally, earlier this week, the Belgian government decided to withdraw the ambassador and in a surprising move lifted Xiang’s immunity. That has opened up the possibility of her prosecution by the South Korean authorities.

Lescouhier is a career diplomat with thirty years’ experience and is a China specialist. Xiang is of Chinese extraction and some observers feel that the continuing anger against her wrong and condemnable conduct also reflects the current general negative perception of China in South Korea. Be that as it may the incident and the Belgian response throws light on how countries are currently viewing notions of diplomatic immunity in an age of heightened nationalism and social media.

This is notwithstanding apparent special South Korean sensitivity towards diplomats. Last year the US ambassador to South Korea who is of mixed American and Japanese parentage grew a moustache but later shaved it off. He did so for it attracted a great deal of adverse comment from South Koreans; it reminded them of the moustaches of their Japanese colonisers! South Korea has very painful memories of Japan’s brutal colonialism but so do many countries. It is unlikely though that any other people would have acted as the South Koreans did on a moustache.

Under the Vienna conventions diplomats who are formally accredited to a country enjoy privileges and immunities of various kinds. These extend to their families and include immunity from criminal prosecution. The purpose of these privileges and immunities is to enable diplomats to carry out their duties freely and without coercion or fear in the country of their posting. Certainly, it is not to break its laws or disregard its customs. Indeed, that would undermine one of their tasks which is to gain the confidence of their hosts and promote a favourable impression about their country. The family of a diplomat plays an important role too. Its conduct is also observed and substantially contributes to the diplomat’s task. In this respect Xiang’s behaviour would have negatively impacted on Belgium’s image in South Korea and the damage done will stay for a considerable period of time.

There is growing impatience in almost all countries against diplomat’s enjoying privileges and immunities. It generally remains dormant. However, it surfaces whenever an incident like Xiang’s occurs. It can also be seen if diplomats break traffic rules whether going through red lights or parking in ‘no-parking’ zones or if do not observe local labour laws. While the text of the Vienna conventions has not changed international practice has, indicating that the global diplomatic community has not remained oblivious of changing popular attitudes towards the privileges and immunities. Thus, now in almost all countries diplomats are not immune from paying traffic fines. And, it matters regarding labour laws it is by now common practice in the advanced countries to allow their nationals to approach labour courts against their diplomat employers.

Where Belgium’s decision regarding lifting Xiang’s immunity sets a new precedent is to allow her to be subjected to the criminal jurisdiction of South Korea. States do not want their diplomats to face criminal proceedings and always ensure that they return to their own countries to go beyond the jurisdiction of local laws. This practice has been universally observed. That does not mean that cases are not registered but that no action can be taken because of immunity. Sometimes if the alleged offence by a diplomat or a member of his family is of a grave nature the country concerned can issue a notice through the Interpol and that restricts the international movement of the person against whom it has been issued for diplomatic immunity is over once the diplomat leaves his/her post.

On the matter of immunities, it should be noted that countries that position contingents of their armed forces also seek immunity for their personnel from criminal jurisdiction. South Korea has around thirty thousand US soldiers based on its territory. There is no doubt that they are beyond the jurisdiction of South Korean courts. It is impossible to conceive that the US would have waived immunity for one of its soldiers if he had been involved in a Xiang like incident. They would have apologised, taken him out of the country and assured that he will be subjected to disciplinary proceedings. The question is would the South Koreans have reacted in such a case as they have in the Xiang matter.

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