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Diplomatic impunity in Pakistan

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The mistakes of diplomats are often sorted out in the battlefield. In the dystopian world that is Pakistan, an American "diplomat's" killing spree could turn out to be the tipping point in ending a war -- the so-called war on terror.

Raymond Davis, described by the Americans as a diplomat but most likely a special ops spy was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore for shooting dead two Pakistanis. The American view is the two attempted to hold him up at gunpoint and he, therefore, acted in self-defense. A third Pakistani cyclist was killed when a backup car from the US consulate went the wrong way down a one-way street.

Blowback in Pakistan
Blowback in Pakistan
(Image by Akhanna/Aviary)
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Considering the incendiary nature of US-Pak relations, the daylight shootout in a public bazaar alone had the potential to send everything to kingdom come. Matters got a lot worse when the wife of one of the dead Pakistanis committed suicide saying she feared her husband's killer would walk.

Tailing of diplomats suspected to be spies is a routine affair worldwide. Victor Cherkashin, the KGB's former Washington station chief, writes in "Memoir of a KGB Officer" that FBI agents followed Russian diplomats virtually everywhere, whether it was business, shopping or sightseeing. Sometimes the KGB officers had to drive around for hours before they could throw off their FBI tail. KGB counter-intelligence played the same cat and mouse game with the CIA in Moscow. But not once in the Cold War decades did this hide and seek cross the line into conflict.

What went wrong in Lahore? The two Pakistanis, who Davis claims threatened him, were most probably officers of the thuggish Inter-Service Intelligence--Pakistan's dirty tricks department which created the Taliban and has ties to the Al-Qaeda. They were simply doing their job of following a suspected spy. Perhaps they engaged in a bit of aggressive posturing--to foil the suspected spy's assignment--but Davis should have exercised restraint and not blown his cover. That he acted like an adrenaline-pumped CIA cowboy is symptomatic of America's bizarre relationship with Pakistan, which it treats as a vassal state.

Among Davis' powerful backers is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is pontificating that diplomatic immunity is sacrosanct. This is the same Clinton who in 2004, as the junior senator from New York, introduced a Bill aimed at revoking the immunity of foreign diplomats who owed unpaid parking fines to the City of New York. "The flagrant disregard for parking regulations has had serious ramification for the safety and quality of life for New Yorkers," she argued. Hello, what page of the Vienna Convention are we on? Revoking immunity for parking tickets and invoking it for a person responsible for snuffing out three human lives?

Davis is clearly no diplomat. According to a Pakistani police report provided to US officials, items recovered in his car include a portable telescope, a digital camera, computer memory cards, a cutter, a flashlight, multiple ATM and military ID cards, and a facial disguise kit. This evidence, which the US does not dispute, is more than enough for a Sharia--or for that matter any--court to send Davis to the guillotine.

US officials want Davis to get away with murder, but diplomatic immunity is not a license to kill. Article 38 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 explicitly states that a diplomatic agent shall enjoy only immunity from jurisdiction and inviolability in respect of official acts. Diplomatic immunity is not meant to benefit individuals personally.

In fact, the previous Article 37 leaves no room for ambiguity, and states that while technical and administrative staff shall also enjoy immunity, it shall not extend to "acts performed outside the course of their duties."

But the Americans are now playing hardball. The full pressure of Washington's diplomacy will now bear down on the hapless Pakistanis. The Pakistani Foreign Minister had to postpone his visit to Munich where he was scheduled to attend a security conference because Clinton cried off. President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to the US next month might be scratched.

It is clear that the pressure on Pakistan is immense. When the country's leaders meet their American patrons, it is often with a wish list, for Pakistan cannot survive six months without American aid.

Washington's interests would be hurt as well. Operations against hardcore Islamic militants in the Swat Valley will be jeopardized and the Afghan campaign will suffer a major blow if American forces are evicted from Pakistani territory. As a US official once said, "The Pakistanis know every rabbit along the Afghan border."

However, there is one group that is enjoying the show from the sidelines--the Islamists. For them it has been a propaganda bonanza, with more than 20,000 people turning up for a Lahore rally to demand Davis' prosecution. In mosques and seminaries across the country, the demagogues are working overtime to whip up popular anger against the much-hated American presence.

Pakistan is a fractured nation, with deep ethnic and religious fault lines. This alone prevents its people from being able to throw the American monkey off their back. Another factor working for the Americans is that there is a tiny elite--a strange medley of army brass, nuclear scientists and landowners--that is pro-America thanks to the huge annual military and economic "aid", much of which ends up in their pockets.

But as events in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated, in the volatile Islamic crescent, events have a way of changing course all of a sudden. Closet Islamists inside the Pakistani establishment, especially its nuclear set-up, will no doubt be seething at the shootout. Some of them are the custodians of the country's 100-odd nuclear bombs. These mad scientists will no doubt be scheming up ways to smuggle out at least a few of these nukes to hit back at the West.

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer.
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