Diplomatic code of conduct is often flouted in Nepal. What can be done?

In Nepal, foreign diplomats often get unrestricted access to political leaders and senior policy-makers and exercise freedom to advise and criticize the Nepal government, something their Nepali counterparts cannot even imagine.

Bhagirath Basnet

  • Read Time 6 min.

The diplomatic code of conduct carries dignities and values beyond formal courtesies. Its evolution across the globe has a significant history of struggles to establish unbiased respect followed by international conventions. In the past, diplomats often received bad treatments from host countries. The matter became really serious in 1709 when a Russian envoy was treated badly in London. This resulted in accordance of diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors by the British Parliament. Later, other European countries also offered similar protections to diplomats. Such protections survived World War I and II, although they have been breached in many instances.  

In 1850, when Jung Bahadur Rana, then prime minister of Nepal, paid a state visit to the United Kingdom, he was treated badly at Southampton, England. Jung Bahadur was asked by a customs officer to open his baggage. Prime Minister Rana immediately reacted threatening to cancel his visit. The issue subsided later when the officer took his words back and apologized for that matter. 

These are just some examples to remind readers the values associated with the diplomatic code of conduct. 

The voices on the diplomatic conducts for the first time were formalized internationally in the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Following the Congress, the Convention Regarding Diplomatic Officers in 1928 in Havana offered the ground rules for diplomatic conduct. A more comprehensive version was drafted in 1961 by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that came into effect in 1964. Consular staff who carry out support functions are also covered by the Vienna Convention and offered fewer immunities and privileges. 

Overtime, the format and practice of diplomatic missions changed. In old times, envoys used to be highly senior persons on a visit to foreign capitals with a political message from their sovereigns and used to have the opportunity to convey the message directly to their rulers’ counterparts. The envoys were accompanied with a small number of support staff and the visit lasted for a few days.

With the rise of global connectivity, international relationships are broadened in many aspects. The old practices of high-level diplomatic visits are replaced by permanent diplomatic missions across countries. Several levels of diplomatic staff in large numbers are posted for diplomatic missions to handle different aspects of relations. This establishes a culture of professionally trained and educated diplomats in the mission to handle complex and sophisticated relationships. The host countries also reciprocate with diplomatic immunities, freedom and tax-free privileges. Host countries may extend more privileges and immunities if they wish. Some of them offer such extras out of politeness or lack of system and others do so based on their special relations or on reciprocity. 

One of the fundamental functions of diplomats, despite the added scope of the diplomatic mission, is to resolve problems between the two countries through cordial meetings. Generally, strict protocols are maintained during such meetings. However, ambassadors have to contend with meetings with junior officials and junior ministers.

For example, ambassadors in the United Kingdom seldom get an appointment to meet the foreign secretary, let alone prime minister. In the United States, foreign ambassadors seldom meet with the secretary of state. The same rule holds good in China, Germany, Belgium and other countries. Even in many other Asian and Latin American countries, such diplomatic protocols and restrictions are largely observed. Ambassadors meet senior ministers and officials of host countries only informally on social occasions, such as group meetings or national day receptions. In general, meeting with senior officials and policy makers is a rare exception, unless under special provision.

Practices in Nepal 

However, the practices of Nepal-based diplomatic missions are to the contrary of the international practices. I think no one will disagree with me if I state the foreign diplomats in Nepal are enjoying privileges of generous immunities and also getting unfettered access to prime ministers, senior ministers, leaderships, and officials without reciprocity or special relations in return. In Nepal, crimes committed by foreign diplomats seldom get investigated, and these representatives are seldom held accountable for breaching the host country’s laws and rules. The diplomats often get unrestricted access to political leaders and senior policy-makers and exercise freedom to advise and criticize the Nepal government, something their counterparts in the respective nations cannot even contemplate.

For instance, foreign ambassadors in Kathmandu can walk into the offices of the prime minister, foreign minister and any senior government officials in short notice. They can call the heads of state and high ranking government officials directly and set up appointments. Surprisingly, Nepali policy makers too eagerly wait for such opportunities to meet, dine and chat with ambassadors. 

Recently, once most results of the general election 2022 were out, the Indian ambassador to Nepal met with the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and current Prime Minister Prachanda. The meeting mainly focused on the formation of a new government in Nepal. The news was widely carried out by major media outlets. 

Many independent critics claim such dealings are often in exchange of political interests and personal interests such as foreign trips, scholarships and visas for their family members or supporters. One of the reasons for such accusations is such meetings never follow diplomatic protocols and the contents of such meetings are unknown. Another aspect is politicians and ministers from the same party often hold conflicting views on many of Nepal’s foreign policies.

For example, Nepal professes one-China policy but there are instances of some ministers participating openly in a pro-Tibet program. One minister shows commitment towards the International Criminal Court treaty in one forum, another government minister from the same political party argues against the treaty in another forum.

Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been charged with the management of foreign relations and diplomacy under the Rules of Business Allocation, it has not been able to carry out its functions properly. There are mainly two reasons for this. 

First, the ministry does not have the capacity and will to carry out its functions effectively. On the one hand, it has a shortage of resources and specialist skills such as in trade, investment, disarmament, immigration, international laws, languages among others. On the other, even when it has those skills and resources, it seldom utilizes them optimally. A Russian language expert, for example, is seldom posted in Moscow. 

Nepal confronts a very sensitive geopolitical situation at the moment. It can serve its interests best by deploying smart foreign policy and diplomacy.

Second, foreign affairs get little importance in Nepal’s scheme of things. Influential politicians opt for finance, home and development ministries from where they can influence their constituencies, build political support and enrich themselves personally. The foreign ministry, therefore, is often headed by an ineffectual senior minister or junior minister who cannot influence their cabinet colleagues to abide by the Rules of Business Allocation and to bring necessary resources to the ministry and its missions abroad to make them effective. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nepal occasionally circulates the code of conduct for diplomats, but such codes are seldom respected by the Nepal-based foreign diplomats. Nor the Nepali leadership shows genuine concerns about such matters. 

Recently, Home Minister Rabi Lamichanne instructed police personnel to take the prior approval from the Ministry before meeting with any diplomats of the foreign missions. He warned of disciplinary actions against those who do not follow the instructions. The instruction has come with good intention but the action falls under the ‘management of foreign relations and diplomacy under the Rules of Business’ and as such should have been applied by the Foreign Ministry. 

Every aware public in Nepal knows who is responsible for such ‘free for all’ actions but no commitments have been shown from the responsible party to make amends. In such circumstances, it is not justified to blame the foreign diplomats either.

What should be done? 

I would like to make some sincere recommendations to mitigate the current problems. We need commitments to the fundamentals that the world struggles over centuries to establish the diplomatic code of conduct and we need to abide by this conduct. We can learn from history that the significance of the diplomatic code of conduct lies on certain principles. They include the principle of nationality, the principle of sovereignty, the principle of non-dominance and, most important, principle of morality.

These principles will only be accomplished if political influences stop in bureaucracy and the bureaucratic system becomes professional. The political influence will not stop until our leadership realizes nationality and morality beyond their personal and political interests and the bureaucracy will not run efficiently in this era if it lacks officials with proper skills and knowledge to confidently resist any political pressure and act professionally. 

Nepal faces a very sensitive geopolitical situation in its neighborhood and it can serve its interests best by deploying smart foreign policy and diplomacy, which should not be used as a tool for promoting private gains of individual leaders at the cost of the nation. 

Hopefully, this time the code will prove more than an empty accomplishment on paper. It will be good if the new set of Nepali political and bureaucratic leaders show more seriousness this time and do not turn the code into a non-code of conduct, as they have done in the past. Nepal’s geopolitical sensitivity and vulnerability requires seriousness in the management of its foreign relations and diplomacy.  

Bhagirath Basnet is a former Nepali ambassador.