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Principle of Reciprocity is Applied Differently


Privacy Policy

Hita ThapaThe principle of reciprocity is often discussed in diplomacy, especially in the conduct of bilateral relations. Simply put the principle provides for equal treatment of diplomats by the respective host countries in terms of extending diplomatic immunities and privileges, while they are performing representational duties.

It is a widely-held view that reciprocity is the cardinal principle of diplomacy. In inter-state relations this principle is universally adhered to, but in practice it has been found that the same principle is not equally applied to all states. It depends on the state of relations existing between the two friendly states. Generally, more powerful states demand more diplomatic privileges from the less powerful ones than they are really willing to offer, though reciprocity does not permit that behavior.

Similarly, in implementing the provisions of an international treaty or convention too, the major powers try to interpret the provisions of convention in a way that suits their national interests. To them the convention cannot be invoked if its invocation creates hurdles for their governments and the same convention can be broadly interpreted to serve their purposes. They are found effortful to bring the case before the International Court of Justice to substantiate their stand. At times they have seemingly exerted influence on international institutions so that their legal position is supported.

This has been illustrated by Satyabrata Pal, a member of National Human Rights Commission of India and a former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan, in his recent piece “Breaching the Vienna Conventions” carried  by The Hindu newspaper against the background of arrest of an Indian diplomat in the U.S. on charges of violating local labor laws. Needless to say that then deputy consul-general of India in New York, Devyani Khobragade, has now been expelled from the receiving country after she was given exemption from prosecution by U.S. law authorities on the basis of diplomatic immunity she enjoyed after being transferred from consulate-general to the Indian mission to the UN in New York.

Pal has criticized the recent action taken by the U.S. against Indian diplomat arguing that the American government in 1979 had appealed to the International Court of Justice accusing the Iranian government of making American diplomatic and consular staff hostages and thus violating the provisions of Vienna Convention on Consular Relations-1963. His argument is that the U.S. administration saw the clear breach of the said convention when its diplomatic and consular staff were held hostage by the Iranians. The Americans interpreted the international treaty conversely when its arrest of an Indian diplomat in the country was disputed on the question of diplomatic immunity as provided for in Vienna Convention. This sounds double speak on the part of the U.S. which is also accused of imposing its world view self-righteously on others as opined by Anand Tewltumbde in his feature “Humiliation: Class Matters (Economic and Political Review)

This episode of handcuffing, strip searching and putting her in a jail for few hours in New York has generated a lot of controversies in terms of claiming immunity on the ground of 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. This incident of arresting Devyani Khobragade on December 12, 2013 and accordingly charging her of visa fraud and giving false declaration by the U.S. law authorities caused even a temporary setback in the bilateral relations between an existing super power and an emerging regional power in South Asia resulting in the cancellation of important visits from the U.S. side in the recent past.

Happily now the diplomatic row is over with the departure of the Indian diplomat after the decision of her expulsion from the U.S. where she had been accredited but its ramification will continue reverberating in bilateral relationship. Unsurprisingly this incident has long term implications on the diplomats of Third World countries, which can’t afford the minimum wage as prescribed in big cities like New York and Washington DC to domestic workers accompanying the envoys to the U.S.

As revealed in the Devyani affair her domestic help Sangeeta Richard was paid around $ 3.00 per hour as against the prescribed minimum wage of $9.75 per hour in New York city and this led to the prosecution of the Indian diplomat by the U.S. authorities. No diplomats of any poor developing country would even receive the monthly salary the tune of $ 4500.00 which Sangeeta Richard was promised while filing visa on her behalf in India. From this viewpoint even the American government is complicit in the visa fraud as it is well known to them that the diplomats of the developing countries have been providing false information regarding the wage being paid to their domestic workers in applying visa for them. They hardly pay the promised salary to their housekeeping servants.

The above diplomatic dispute between India and the U.S., though it has been resolved through intervention form the State Department, has demonstrated that in case the under-paid (and in case of Nepal’s diplomats not even paying at all) domestic aid misadventure to seek legal assistance from agencies like Safe Horizon to intervene in the court on their behalf as the maid of Devyani did, the consequences would be disastrous for us.

Nepal is constrained to take a principled position with a super power provided our diplomats in the U.S. face criminal cases similar to the Indian diplomat’s. If India, whose relations with the U.S. has been quite good for the last few years, could face embarrassment because of America’s insistence to the adherence of the rule of law forcing the accredited diplomat to leave the U.S., there is no reason to believe that any other diplomat would be spared, if it is felt necessary.

Therefore, it would be prudent on the part of Nepal government to undertake timely corrective measures so that possible visa fraud cases could be avoided altogether. It may have to rethink the existing generous policy of permitting the domestic help to accompany those diplomats who can’t keep up their promises of paying the salary conforming to the requirements of U.S. labor laws. Precaution may prevent humiliation for the nation.

Thapa was former foreign relations advisor to the Prime Minister in 2008-09. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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