Sovereignty for Sale

IN PERSPECTIVE. The Ambassador exposes a particularly dark side of global capitalism, says Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen who has studied the game of diplomatic titles brokerage.

Diplomatic immunity. Along with becoming a world-famous chef this was probably one of my most recurring childhood fantasies and, I am guessing, of Mads Brügger too. As a grown-up I still thoroughly envy those who are able to flash their diplomatic passport when they pass me at the airport immigration line. The fascination with the notion of diplomatic immunity is that it grants you the possibility to move outside the ordinary game rules. Who doesn't remember the South African diplomat in "Lethal Weapon 2" who indignantly invokes diplomatic immunity telling Riggs and Murtaugh that they cannot as much as give him a parking ticket, much less arrest him on charges of drug smuggling.

In "The Ambassador", Mads Brügger walks a thin line between legal and illegal, reality and parody. Coming across as a mix between Tintin's arch-nemesis Rastapopoulos and the Man with the Yellow Hat from Curious George, Brügger's factional character plays on all the postcolonial clichés. Yet, the fact that he supposedly holds diplomatic status makes his project eerily real, thereby giving the audience a glimpse into the normally impenetrable world of international diplomacy.

Brügger's diplomatic papers allow him certain freedoms and protection, even in a country such as the Central African Republic. Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations anyone with full diplomatic status enjoys criminal immunity in the host country. On top of that the Convention provides that diplomats are allowed to carry a 'diplomatic bag' intended for official use. In reality the 'bag' is a flexible concept and may constitute anything from an envelope to a shipping container, the key point being that it cannot be searched or seized by immigration officers or any other law officials.

It is easy to see how diplomatic status provides the perfect setup for smuggling or other criminal activities. This is hardly limited to Africa however. There have been plenty of examples of serious abuse of diplomatic status in Europe and the United States, and in the City of London alone, for instance, embassies owe more than £30 million in unpaid parking and congestion charge fines.

Yet a diplomatic passport does not always equal a 'get out of jail free'-card. Looking at a recent example the United
States, who never signed the Vienna Convention but applies a national statute, did not accept that the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had diplomatic immunity when he was charged with raping a maid, since his 
visit to New York was not in an official 
IMF capacity. Protection secondly depends on the continued support from the country issuing the diplomatic 
papers. Immunity belongs to the country, not the individual diplomat.

The notion that a diplomatic passport 
can be bought or sold just like anything else points to a key feature of Mads Brügger's film and the world we live in today. Companies brokering diplomatic titles or, as is also the case, offering to take over diplomatic functions for small countries unable to keep up embassies around the world, is just one example of a much wider trend for states to basically sell off their sovereignty. The entire legal framework builds on the presumption that diplomats are the legitimate envoys of the sending state. Yet, the growing market for diplomatic passports suggests that more and more states are making diplomatic titles available on a market basis to supplement the revenues of either corrupt officials and/or the government itself.

This 'commercialisation of sovereignty' can be seen in a range of different areas. Liberia, the country from which Brügger obtained his papers, is incidentally also the world's largest shipping nation. Since the 1960s Liberia has made a lucrative business of registering international ships under Liberian flag so they can avoid taxation, criminal prosecution and labor requirements otherwise applicable in the shipping company's own country.

Similarly, commercial fishing along the West African coast is today dominated by European vessels since the EU has bought up national fishing quotas from these countries. A little further south the small island state of Sao Tome is making profits by renting out its phone lines to porn operators. And on the other side of Africa, Mauritius, inspired by places like Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, has become Africa's leading tax haven.

The common theme to all these schemes is that governments are willing 
to sell or rent out what is otherwise considered an exclusive prerogative of the state itself. Traditionally, this has been considered either aberrations or a direct threat to states. Yet, the growth of these practices suggests that states are increasingly succumbing to global market mechanisms. Rather than trying
to control and constrain these forces, governments spend more and more time figuring out ways to play the sovereignty game in such a way to attract international capital or avoid political and legal constraints.

Again, this is nothing unique to the 
developing world. From the privatisation of prisons and military services to the offshoring of terrorist detention and immigration control both Europe and the US are actively engaged in similar practices of bartering off and outsourcing otherwise core sovereign functions.

Most of the time, these practices are carried out far away from the public's eye. The rare thing about Brügger's film
is that it exposes a particularly dark side 
of global capitalism where the line between public and private, business and government, is not only blurred but on occasion completely erased.

Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen is a Research fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies and co-author of Sovereignty Games: Instrumentalizing State Sovereignty in Europe and Beyond, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2008.