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License for diplomatic immunity

Debts in arrears for the rent of office spaces and residence quarters are more common than the domestic help abuse and rapes in such city like Addis Ababa, home to one of the largest diplomatic representatives in the world. Whether in the form of debts or rape, diplomats who abuse their immunity have become part of a widespread problem. The most recent incident at the South Korean Embassy may be one of several other cases buried beneath our feet that we might never know about, writes Esayas B. Gebremeskel.

In its 71-year history, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has had 11 managing directors, five of whom were from France. The firm’s 10th managing director was Dominique Strauss-Kahn (PhD), who had remained at the helm from November 2007 through May 2011, by which time he was 62.

In early summer 2011, members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) made their way to his residence at the New York Hotel. They had his warrant of arrest on the charges of sexually assaulting a 32-year-old female employee of the hotel in which he stayed. Despite the diplomatic immunity, he was kept in remand and later being placed under house arrest until the bail terms arranged for him to settle the matter outside the court.

Since then, this top diplomat never came out clean from his rape case. Although he was forced to relinquish the position he held at IMF and went on his life, to date, the former IMF’s managing director has never been convicted of his alleged offence. Rape, has continued as a menace in the diplomatic circles.         

A few weeks ago, there was a media report about a South Korean diplomat being accused of sexual assault. According to this news report, a high-ranking diplomatic official at the South Korean Embassy in Ethiopia, who goes only by his first name, Lee, was alleged to have made mischievous sexual advances against a young fellow Embassy staffer.

He allegedly intoxicated the young woman into a state of somnolence. This is a classic act of sex predatory in which the hapless young Korean found herself in bed with one of the Korean diplomats who was in her company the previous night. Possibly she toasted with the odd drink that made her prey to a libido.

The disgraced diplomat, who was summoned before his Ambassador, has since reportedly been recalled home. The South Korean Embassy, though, remains adamant that it will neither disclose the full name nor his profile to the local journalists who made contacts with the Embassy. The Embassy continued stonewalling in an attempt to play down the seriousness of the matter.

This lack of transparency on the part of the Embassy to provide sufficient information about the alleged rapist, who was a senior diplomat at the time of the incident, is a clear manifestation for belittling of the matter using as a cover its diplomatic clout.

Interestingly, we learn from the media that journalists who took extra efforts to solicit some fair details to give a sense of perspective for their reporting found nothing more than being told off by the Embassy’s only response: “This is a South Korean matter, not an Ethiopian one.”

Hasn’t the South Korean Embassy overlooked the fact that rape is a sadistic crime and would have a reverberating consequence that goes far beyond a national border?

Whether or not the rapist and his victim are South Korean citizens, a rape case has emotional and moral implications on everyone else, irrespective of any particular citizenship. This is equally true when a rape case of such a nature occurred under circumstances we have learned about. As much as the case matters for the South Koreans, it is a matter of concern for Ethiopians. The country in which a foreign diplomatic mission based its representation would have a legal prerogative to delve into the case, so too journalists in their own rights.

After all, journalism is a vital platform for bringing in the truth to the public, when such scandalous behavior and crime particularly committed by diplomats, who could probably go unchecked under the cover of their excessive diplomatic immunities.  

Do all diplomats have the same immunity to get away with everything they may be accused of? To address this question, here is what I found through an expert source accessible online: “Under the Vienna Convention, diplomatic immunity is a privilege reserved for individuals based on their rank and the level of immunity they need to be granted to execute their missions without legal obstacles. The higher the rank, the greater the immunity would be.”

Still diplomats are subject to respect and follow the laws and regulations of their host countries bearing in mind that their immunity isn’t a getaway license for any crimes they may be committing.

This convention in its Article 29 states that "the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving state shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent attack on his person, freedom or dignity."

I asked one senior Ethiopian diplomat, who was recently on a brief visit in the country and does not want his name to be mentioned here, to share his experience on what it is like to have diplomatic immunity in the face of an allegation such as a rape case. This is what he had to say: “Within the context of an international law, a host country (receiving country) has the discretion to request the home country (sending country) of an alleged offender with a diplomatic status to be waived of his or her immunity for procedural due process.” Details of the law aside, what do we know in practice about diplomats of being accused of rape?

For instance, in 2015, the Saudi Arabian Embassy in New Delhi was at loggerheads against the media reports over its senior diplomat, Majed Hassan Ashoor, who was accused of sexual assault. Ashoor was then serving as the First Secretary at the Embassy. His alleged victim was a 25-year-old Nepalese citizen, who was working as a maid in the Saudi Embassy. Although the accused diplomat was sent home, the Saudi Embassy had maintained its outright denial of the charges as nothing more than media fabrication.   

Thanks to the media coverage, there are similar stories on diplomatic immunity abuse being brought to the public knowledge in a variety of ways. The most serious criminal conducts in the form of domestic abuses and rapes have increasingly become visible by the media in more countries than we realize.

Sadly, a number of immunity abuse cases have gone unpunished. Diplomats and their family members who had been accused of one or the other serious criminal behavior avoided prosecution by claiming diplomatic immunity. Some time ago, the New York Police Department in the US made a strong case against the son of a resident diplomat, who was suspected for 15 rapes and had managed to fly back home unscratched using diplomatic immunity as a shield.

Similarly, debts in arrears for the rent of office spaces and residence quarters are more common than the domestic help abuse and rapes in such city like Addis Ababa, home to one of the largest diplomatic representatives in the world. Whether in the form of debts or rape, diplomats who abuse their immunity have become part of a widespread problem. The most recent incident at the South Korean Embassy may be one of several other cases buried beneath our feet that we might never know about.

The manner in which virtually all diplomats from every country come to defend of one of their own when faced with charges of sexual assaults, claiming diplomatic immunity is their modus operandi. As was the case it occurred in the Saudi Embassy in New Delhi in 2015, the South Korean Embassy in Ethiopia sent his accused diplomat home. 

Worse, the officials in the Embassy did not even bother to reveal the extent of the rape saga to the journalists, which appears odd considering how well economically developed and democratically advanced South Korea is. 

Let’s be fair, unlike its renegade neighbor north of the peninsula, the Republic of South Korea comfortably seats among the ten top-tiers of economic success story in the world. Many pundits, including its critics, agree that South Korea’s democracy has converted challenges and obstacles into opportunities for reform and development throughout the past several decades. The rules of law in this democratically a born again republic would spare no one, including a head of state, if being found in the wrong side of the law. The media in South Korea are as powerful as other branches of the government. 

How on earth do representatives of a country as advanced as the South Korea fall short of the expected discipline to reveal enough information about the high profile rape case allegedly associated to one of theirs? For whatever reasons, the Embassy, for now, chose to withhold the details. Who knows, Mr. Lee could conceal other cases during his tenure.

As in the case for the former IMF’s managing director, whose diplomatic immunity had powered him through impunity, Mr. Lee must have used the same playbook to his safety. Do we ever disclose whether this is the only one case had occurred while Lee was a diplomat in Ethiopia?  

His doesn’t look like a neophyte, for there is no such thing as a first-time rapist. In the absence of sufficient contents revealed to the local media, how could we be certain there weren’t more people who had the same fate befall them before this libidinous diplomat quietly flew back home?

Ed.’s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected].