Why Diplomatic Immunity in the Case of the Saudi Diplomat Raises Critical Questions

29 September 2015
The two Nepalese women who were allegedly harassed by Saudi diplomat in Gurgaon, at the Nepal embassy on September 9, 2015 in Delhi. The women have accused a Saudi diplomat of rape and torture while they were working in his home at Gurgaon.
Sushil Kumar/ Hindustan Times/ Getty Images
The two Nepalese women who were allegedly harassed by Saudi diplomat in Gurgaon, at the Nepal embassy on September 9, 2015 in Delhi. The women have accused a Saudi diplomat of rape and torture while they were working in his home at Gurgaon.
Sushil Kumar/ Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

On 7 September 2015, two Nepalese women, aged 44 and 30, were rescued from an apartment in Gurgaon, where they had been held hostage for four months. These women had left Nepal in search of better prospects. One of them had lost her home in the earthquake that devastated the country in April this year, while the other, a divorcee living with her daughter, had no regular source of income. According to a report published in the Indian Express, a placement agency in Delhi “sold” the two women to a Saudi Arabian diplomat, Majed Hassan Ashoor, who initially hired them as domestic help. “Both these women were promised salaries of up to Rs 30,000 a month working in Jeddah [in Saudi Arabia],” a police officer in Delhi told the Express. Ashoor first took them to Jeddah for 15 days and later brought them to Gurgaon. He then confined the women to his Gurgaon residence against their wishes, and allegedly subjected them to sexual assault and torture regularly, going so far as to “offer” them to his guests. Ashoor’s wife, allegedly aware of the assaults, did not help them. Their terrible ordeal ended only after the third domestic helper in the apartment, who managed to flee, blew the whistle on their condition. The medical reports later leaked to the media substantiated the victims’ charge of being subjected to repeated sexual torture.

Although this is not the first incident of its kind to taint the diplomatic community in India, the recent revelations sparked a discussion, nevertheless. The debate, however, seems to be oddly preoccupied not with the crimes of sexual assault, trafficking and slavery, but with India’s diplomatic quandary. Much of the recent discourse has circled around the strategic and economic backlash that India might have to face by expelling the diplomat, or even aggressively pressing on its complaint to the Saudi leadership. Rather than waive the diplomat’s right to immunity, the Saudi embassy unsurprisingly lost no time in dismissing the rape charges as fabricated. It further accused the Indian government of violating the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations—the 1961 United Nations treaty that determines the framework of diplomatic relations, and is followed by much of the world.

Article 29 of the Vienna Convention states that “the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable,” and that “he shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention.” This immunity is prompted by the principle that diplomats should be able to focus on their work without any fear or intimidation on foreign soil. Its objective to was to protect diplomats, particularly, in times of international conflicts. It is an aspect of the treaty that continues to be debated. In April 2011 for instance, 50 years after document was signed, The Guardian noted, “It [the treaty] also gives almost unlimited immunity to diplomatic agents. It is a bit embarrassing to be reminded of that.” The report went on to add that, “It was the Vienna convention that in 1981 protected a young hotheaded diplomat by the name of Moussa Koussa, who publicly approved the planned assassination of Libyan dissidents. Investigations into this situation were never going to get very far: as head of the Libyan mission, he was immune from prosecution.”

In this case, the question of human rights seems to have lost out to the calculations of the economic and military profit India makes from its convivial relations with the well heeled in Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic jugglery advanced by experts and opinion makers has had a twisted, if not outright immoral, ring to it. It has been repeatedlymentioned that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will soon visit Saudi Arabia—which supplies large quantities of oil to India—in the next few months. In much of the media coverage, the public has beenreminded that the Gulf country hosts almost two million Indian workers. Economically a lucrative partner for India, Saudi Arabia is also an important ally for India from a global strategic and military perspective. That this diplomatic quandary involves not just Saudi Arabia but Nepal as well, has been whittled down to an after-thought, a footnote in the broader narrative.

Human rights violations are often ignored within the governmental framework of what is described as a larger national or strategic goal. For instance, India has never raised its voice against the atrocities committed on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In the past, it actively engaged with Myanmar’s military junta which is infamous for its human rights violations. Although the present Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has indicated that it wants to deepen its relationship with Nepal, the tiny Himayalan country cannot hope to match the economic might of Saudi Arabia, neither cannot it offer the kind of benefits India stands to gain by allying itself with the Gulf nation.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.

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