Diplomatic immunity is a bureaucratic innovation to ensure that nations do not literally shoot the messenger. It is a derivative of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which institutes privileges that foreign missions have in a host country.
These include a recognition that missions should not be encroached on; that diplomats have legal cover, giving them a measure of latitude when pursuing their interests, allowing them to even push the envelope when doing so. It is most useful in times of conflict when diplomats should be able to ferry messages even in hostile situations.
This week saw an gross violation of those norms, allegedly, with the news that a Saudi Arabian diplomat subjected two poor women from Nepal to sexual slavery along with his friends. The Saudi Arabia embassy has reportedly invoked diplomatic immunity and has objected to the raid on a staffer’s residence and the detail appearing in the media.
The mission has said that it was awaiting a report of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) on the matter while India has asked the mission to cooperate in the investigation. The Saudi elite is a famously closed one but Riyadh should be alert to the implications of this case. The kingdom’s reputation has taken a beating in recent years, owing to the export of extremist ideologies that have inspired terror attacks the world over.
As the US’ dependence on Saudi oil reduces, the scrutiny of the kingdom is increasing — and this is the kind of case that will bring unwelcome international attention. For its own sake and the cause of justice it must handle this case judiciously and avoid being seen as condoning sexual slavery under the cover of immunity. A diplomat accused of such a heinous crime is no use to the kingdom and the former should be treated as justice demands.
India too must pursue this case to demonstrate that it takes human trafficking seriously. The MEA is caught between two strategically important nations on this issue. Nepal’s public opinion will expect India to act tough while Saudi Arabia is a key source of oil, diaspora remittances and even counter-terrorist cooperation. There’s a lot at stake. The Saudis should not hold bilateral ties hostage to the future of a criminal, if he is proven to be one.