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Commentaries: Do We Still Need Embassies?

One of the impacts of the global recession is that it has compelled a number of countries to scale back their diplomatic representation overseas by closing some of their embassies. Faced with the economic and financial realities during economic downturns, governments often have little choice but to cut back on the spending that is involved in maintaining and operating embassies overseas. Not surprisingly, then, there has been discussion or debate as to whether embassies and resident diplomats are still needed or relevant in the 21st century. Globalization and rapid advances in information and telecommunications technology have connected billions of people. The conduct of diplomacy cannot be immune to this. It must change or at least adapt, so that it is more responsive and effective in this modern environment.


Commentaries: U.S. ambassador’s post to the Vatican remains unfilled

There was no U.S. ambassador in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square during Tuesday’s installation of Pope Francis at the Vatican. That post has been vacant since November, when Miguel Diaz, a theologian, left the job to teach at the University of Dayton. Some Catholic critics of the Obama administration see that empty chair as a symbol for the lack of engagement between Washington and Vatican City. One of the candidates for ambassador, Nick Cafardi, former dean of the Duquesne University School of Law and co-chair of Catholics for Obama, disputed that characterization, listing numerous human rights campaigns in which the Vatican works with the State Department, such as battling human trafficking. In addition, while battling poverty is hardly a new focus for the Vatican, some speculate whether Pope Francis’s emphasis on the issue could become the basis for even more cooperation.


Commentaries: US takes its diplomacy digital

When John Kerry took to Twitter on his first day as US secretary of state, he joined an army of diplomats using social media to reach out and connect directly with people around the world. “Exhilarating to walk into @StateDept today and get to work with remarkable team. Dad on mind! -JK,” Kerry wrote in his first personal tweet. In less than 140 characters, the new US top diplomat instantly signaled he intended to carry on and deepen a commitment to using social media begun under his predecessor Hillary Clinton. Clinton did not tweet, but she propelled the State Department towards what she called 21st Century Statecraft, and social media engagement has taken off. There are now more than 300 Twitter accounts with some three million followers, over 400 Facebook pages with close to 20 million fans, and 185 YouTube channels as well as Flickr, Google+ and Instagram links run by the State Department, its embassies, staff and diplomats. Most of the embassy Facebook pages are written both in English and the local language, and the official Twitter accounts are in 11 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Russian and Turkish. Absent any diplomatic ties with Iran, there’s even a “virtual embassy of Tehran” (http://iran.usembassy.gov/) set up in late 2011 and managed from Washington carrying information about visas and studying in the United States.


Commentary: US steps into a virtual Iranian world

The administration of United States President Barack Obama has launched a virtual US Embassy in Iran that, as expected, has been immediately filtered.Tehran sees it as yet another subversive initiative by Uncle Sam to sow divisions between the people and the Islamic regime that overthrew a US-friendly dictator and then took American diplomats as hostage for 444 days in 1979-1980, prompting theUSto sever diplomatic ties with Iran. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast has called theWashingtoninitiative an historical admission of its mistake in cutting off diplomatic relations withIran. The Americans, on the other hand, scoff at the notion that they could have maintained relations with their embassy taken over and their diplomats in custody. For sure, there is no lack of blame on both sides as to the cause and effect of the long diplomatic alienation between the US and Iran. The US’s Virtual Embassy Tehran website aims to bring information and dialogue to Iranian citizens. For some ordinary Iranians, the ability to file for visas through the virtual embassy, instead of undertaking the chore of traveling abroad, at least for the initial application, represents a plus, while others see this as a US trap to lure Iranians with the promise of rewards by mobilizing them against their government. The lines between consular and political activities are cut pretty short here. Nearly a decade ago, both sides briefly entertained the idea of aUSconsular office on one of Iran’s Persian Gulf islands, such as Kish or Qeshm, and for a while the Iranian government under president Mohammad Khatami seemed amenable to the idea. But it was quickly forgotten in the quicksand of mutual hostility that has consistently dwarfed any and all initiatives to restore diplomatic relations betweenTehranandWashington. One reason for Iran’s objection at the time was the fear that the US would use its facility in thePersian Gulf to spy on Iran’s naval activities. Another concern was the possibility of unwanted long lines reflecting a big desire on the part of many Iranians to visit the US. However, from Tehran’s point of view, a diplomatic foothold by the US in Iran would enlarge the US’s eye and ears. The US is actually taking advantage of no diplomatic relations for a free hand in covert and other similar activities, whereas with a full-staff embassy, the US would be forced to respect some boundaries. In other words, the US is definitely on a war path with Iran, all the more reason why Washington is presently content with only a virtual embassy instead of an actual one that could act as a buffer handicapping the US’s war moves. The virtual one is not a prelude to an actual one, but rather a substitute as far as the US is concerned, one that fulfills less a consular and more a soft power function, as a tool of influence.



Commentary: Troubled SA diplomacy could doom climate talks

A United Nations climate change summit, which already promises only modest steps for cutting greenhouse gas pollution, could be in more trouble unless host South Africas harpens up its international image. The 190-nation gathering inDurbanat the end of this month follows years of fraught attempts to win agreement on strong emission curbs from big polluting nations. Expectations of success are already low for the talks, where parties are trying to find a way of saving the landmark Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which expires at the end of 2012.  Analysts expect all the same that the talks will produce a face-saving measure to prevent the Kyoto deal from dying in Durban. But the cloud has deepened after a series of diplomatic gaffes by the host country that have eroded confidence in its ability to take a grip on the debate and help shape the summit’s outcome. Furthermore, South Africa has strained relations with major Western powers which are normally major fund sources of global policies but are increasingly reluctant to allocate money due to debt worries in the eurozone and US. South Africa has found itself on the wrong side of the mainstream argument over Libya and Ivory Coast. Western powers also raised their eyebrows when Pretoria blocked a visit by the Dalai Lama to please China, its biggest trading partner. Analysts recall the Copenhagen climate talks of 2009 which were roundly regarded as a failure, in part because the host country could not do the heavy lifting to broker the deals required. The talks in 2010 in Cancun were regarded as a relative success, with many negotiators crediting Mexican envoys for pushing the process forward. South Africa’s environment minister is Edna Molewa, a highly regarded domestic political operative with almost no experience in global negotiations. Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has more international experience, serving as an ambassador, but has not been seen as a force in regional or global diplomacy. It was Mashabane’s diplomacy that came in for Western criticism when Pretoria supported entrenched and autocratic leaders in Libya, Syria and Ivory Coast. Its stance strained ties with the European Union and Washington. The refusal to allow the Dalai Lama, a Nobel peace prize laureate seen as a dangerous separatist by Beijing, to attend the 80th birthday of South Africa’s national hero Desmond Tutu, also provoked an outcry. Foreign Policy magazine dubbed South Africa a “cowardly lion”. Critics said the ANC has compromised ideals it embraced when it fought to end apartheid. “Principles have fallen to such an extent that nobody expects them to do the right thing,” said a diplomat in Pretoria.



Commentary: Canadian diplomats being told to do less with less

At a time when most are having to do more with less, a government report says Canadian diplomats should be discouraged from going above and beyond the call of duty for fear of raising expectations. In particular, the Foreign Affairs department evaluation cites Canadian envoys working in other countries for exceeding established standards when it comes to their treatment of visiting dignitaries and officials, such as airport pick-ups. “The evaluation found that the use of discretion to exceed service standard has resulted in inconsistent service delivery to stakeholders across missions,” the reports reads. This is an issue, the report says, because when those same visitors do not receive the same treatment at another Canadian embassy or consulate, “this leads to confusion and a sense of dissatisfaction.” In their defence, diplomats told evaluators a degree of flexibility in applying the standards was necessary given the different contexts and environments in which Canadian embassies operate around the world. They also noted that smaller diplomatic posts generally get fewer visits from senior officials, and so picking dignitaries up at the airport gives the envoys an important opportunity to discuss strategic issues. Former Canadian ambassador to the UN Paul Heinbecker said he ran up against government rules and standards when he was in the foreign service, “but I never listened to that much.” Heinbecker said he believes things have gotten worse since he was in government, particularly as accountability has become a major buzzword in recent years. “What you have to do is keep firmly in mind what you’re there for, which is (to) advance Canadian interests,” he said of the foreign service. “The rules are not supposed to be there to prevent you from doing that.” Staff at Foreign Affairs, like at all federal government departments, are being forced to submit to cabinet proposals on how to cut five and 10 per cent from their spending. Experts expect travel and hospitality funds to be one of the first areas to be hit.



Commentary: Do diplomats need UK in-transit visas?

You should be aware that not only diplomats but also government officials and members of governments need to complete certain application forms when they are travelling through the UK, even though they may be travelling in an official capacity. The application form that is completed will vary, and it will depend on your purpose for travelling to or through the UK. If the diplomat, government official or member of government is travelling to or through the UK for private reasons, such as a tourist or on a course of study, then that person would have to make an application for a visa in the conventional way. With respect to diplomats, government officials and members of government, there are various reasons these categories of travellers could be required to complete the appropriate diplomatic application forms. Such officials in these categories would be required to do so if they are a diplomat going to the UK on an official posting. In addition, a particular application form would need to be filled out for a dependant of a diplomat who is also entering the UK on an official posting. Also, a certain form would be needed to be filled out if the diplomat is in transit through the UK and is on his or her way to take up a diplomatic post in another country, and this would also apply to a diplomat who was travelling to theUKon official business. When a diplomat is posted to the UK he or she would have to fill out the form VAFDIP1. With respect to a dependent of a diplomat who is posted to theUK, he or she would have to apply for entry using form VAFDIP1DEP. Also, when diplomats are ‘in transit’ through the UK and who are on their way to take up a diplomatic posting in another country or for members of foreign governments who are also ‘in transit’ through the UK to another country on official business, those individuals would have to make their applications to transit through the UK using VAFDIP3. In addition, as stated above, diplomats who are travelling to the UK on official business and for members of foreign governments who are travelling to the UK on government business would also need to make an application and would need to use form VAFDIP2. Further, diplomats, government officials and members of government, as part of their application, will need to enrol their fingerprints and facial image, this is known as ‘biometric information’, at a visa application centre in whatever country they are travelling as part of their application.