The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 22, 2003
Lead Article

Chanceries as political sanctuaries
K. R. N. Swamy

A view of India House at London, the country’s largest chancery abroad
A view of India House at London, the country’s largest chancery abroad

THE recent diplomatic incident in New Delhi, in which a son of the Seneghalese Ambassador to India was accused of killing his Indian driver, and the resultant diplomatic furore bring into focus the question of diplomatic immunity to ambassadors and embassies. According to international rules, "Diplomatic officers accredited to a foreign government as ambassadors, are immune from the jurisdiction of all courts of the host state. The families and households of such diplomatic officers enjoy the same immunity".

In the late 1980s, a South Asian ambassador to an African country had murdered his wife on the embassy premises and the host country had to be satisfied with ensuring his recall. In the USA, the police cannot arrest any diplomat for traffic offences. In the early 1950s, veteran diplomat Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, the then Indian representative to the USA, was once hauled up for overspeeding. But on finding out that he was a senior diplomat, the police let him off.

Often, the sanctity accorded to diplomatic residences and chanceries has led to the creation of world history. The first thing most dictators do once they seize power is to make arrangements with a friendly consulate to provide asylum in case things get hot. During this year’s Iraq war, in the last stages it was suspected that Saddam Hussein had taken asylum in the Russian Embassy in Baghdad.


In the case of Indian chanceries, a classic instance was when in 1950, the Head of State of Nepal, King Tribhuvan, took refuge in the Indian Embassy at Kathmandu and soon after, the oppressive Rana regime was overturned. Some times, the reverse happens and antagonists of the embassies and their government take over chanceries, holding the staff hostage to publicise their viewpoint. During the 1980s, the huge Indian chancery, India House in London, was targeted many times by the supporters of the Khalistan movement.

This highlights an aspect of international relations, wherein consular buildings are forcefully entered by refugees fleeing political persecution. Last year, the North Korean refugees, who took asylum in the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to win their way to South Korea, focussed public attention on this matter. At one stage, the Japanese Government had alleged that the Chinese entered the Japanese chancery illegally, to take away the refugees.

Cardinal Mindzenty of Hungary holds the record of a refugee’s longest stay in any foreign embassy. He spent 15 years in the US Embassy in Budapest. A state prisoner of the Communist regime in Hungary since 1949, the Cardinal was rescued by his supporters in 1956 during the anti-Communist revolt. As the revolt collapsed, he went into the US Embassy for asylum and was able to leave Hungary for the USA only in 1971.

The alacrity with which a consulate or embassy grants asylum depends upon its relations with the host country and the independence of the judiciary in the host country. In the 1970s, India enjoyed a good reputation in this matter, as many defectors found that the Indian judiciary could not be pressurised into taking a political decision. But the ‘refugees’ (usually diplomats or tourists from Communist countries) found it wiser to make a "deal" with the western nation granting them asylum, escape into Nepal or Bangladesh during weekends, and then get spirited out of Asia, rather than take asylum in chanceries in New Delhi.

Once the sanctuary seeker enters its portals, an embassy takes action depending on the value (political or strategic) of the applicant. But as in all matters, a political lightweight will often be turned out, to be devoured by the "host" wolves. One western embassy in Moscow turned away a Russian factory worker, who had walked for six months from Siberia to ask for asylum, as his political value was nil. But Americans spirited Svetlana Stalin, daughter of Josef Stalin, out of India, and granted her asylum before the world knew that she had defected.

At times, instead of providing asylum to a foreigner, a chancery becomes a refuge for its own nationals, who want to evade punishment for crimes committed in the host country. In 1967, the Chinese delegation to a conference in Denmark murdered one of its own compatriots, who wanted to defect to the West. When the Danish police chased them, they hid in the local Chinese Embassy. The Danes were determined to get to the offenders and the diplomatic relations between Denmark and China came to the brink before the matter was "sorted out". MF