Front pages of various newspapers on Thursday have been awash with news that the Saudi Arabia diplomat accused of sexual assault on two Nepali maids has left India. News reports go on to suggest that the diplomat’s quiet departure was the result of a diplomatic bargain struck between New Delhi and Riyadh, after the intervention of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The incident, as expressed in these columns earlier, has once again raised the question of how to reconcile the victim’s right to justice with the underlying principle of diplomatic immunity. For the uninitiated, diplomatic immunity is the exemption foreign diplomats are given from certain laws and taxes in the country where they are posted. Its stated aim was to allow diplomats to function independently in a particular country, bereft of possible threats from the host country.
Diplomatic immunity is governed under two international conventions — the Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961, and the Convention on Consular Relations, 1963. Club the two together and you have what is called the Vienna Convention. It has been ratified by 187 countries, including India. The state purpose of the Vienna Convention is to allow diplomats to discharge their official duties without fear of reprisal or pressure from host governments. According to a former foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, “It is important to understand that the way international relations are structured, diplomats represent the sovereignty of a state to which they belong. Diplomatic immunity is therefore accorded to the ‘state’, as it were, not the individual per se. If a foreigner were not a state representative, there would be no immunity for any infraction of the law”.
What is evident from the alleged horrific sequence of events at the Saudi diplomat’s residence in Gurgaon is that his actions in no way constituted a part of his “official duties”. Although a diplomat may be a recipient of diplomatic immunity from the crimes committed, he is answerable to the laws of Saudi Arabia. Under the laws of the Arabian kingdom, rape is punishable by death. Under the current circumstance, it would be expected that the erring diplomat is subject to capital punishment. Whether the Saudi government goes ahead and seeks requisite documents about the case and tries him for rape can be best left to conjecture. However, what has irked rights activists in India is that New Delhi deliberately went soft on the case. These comments, however, do not take into account the dilemma that exists between the rights of the victim and the principle of diplomatic immunity.
Moreover, it does not take into account of the larger geopolitical ramifications if New Delhi had ordered the arrest and trial of the Saudi diplomat. As former Foreign Secretary Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra said, the Saudis are “frightfully important to India at the moment due to the global circumstances and the Saudi diplomat’s departure seems like a solution arrived at through mutual consultation”.
The importance of Saudi Arabia to India is largely two-fold: geo-strategic ties and crude oil. Moreover, Riyadh continues to exert a strong influence over the 2.5 million-strong expatriate Indian community in Saudi Arabia. In 2006, when King Abdullah visited New Delhi in 2006 as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, both sides signed the “Delhi Declaration”, which forged a strategic energy partnership. Among other nations, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest suppliers of crude oil to India. Moreover, India happens to be a country which imports 80 percent of its oil needs. Ties between the two nations are so strong that Saudi Arabia’s national petroleum company Aramco is willing to sell oil to India, even if it falls behind on payments.
In no way does such a rationale absolve the Saudi government or its Indian counterpart. New Delhi has presumably suggested that its hands are tied under the Vienna Convention. Although, for civil wrongs committed, the diplomat is not completely immune from prosecution, if his guilt is indeed proved. After Wednesday’s events, however, if New Delhi truly cares about justice for the victims, it would pursue the case with Riyadh, provide the necessary case documents, and if permitted, send its police to question the diplomat with official permission from the Saudi government.