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Consular affairs: Hell at foreign embassies in Ghana

At a time human rights have become the focus of global discussion, Ghanaians seeking visas to some countries are given hostile reception while they await their interview sessions. A visit by the Finder newspaper to a number of Embassies showed the plight of applicants. There was a lack of shelter and minimum provision of chairs. The embassies and High Commissions visited were those of theUnited States of America, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France and South Africa. Most applicants The Finder met at the US Embassy were seen waiting under trees and sitting on rocks. This situation has led to an individual hiring out seats on a pay-as-you-sit basis. The individual who gave her name as Sara provided applicants with plastic chairs and charged them 60 pesewas an hour. A student-applicant who gave his name as Justice told The Finder that he arrived at the Embassy at about 10:20am but was expected to go in for his interview at 1pm. “I have paid a visa fee of US$140 and therefore expected to be served well but as you can see, I am sitting on a rock and this is where I am going to sit till 1pm; can you imagine the discomfort?” he asked. A family of four, who patronized Sara’s plastic chair services, said they agreed to pay GH¢2.40 for every hour that they sat on the chairs. They said it was their second visit to the embassy, adding that the situation was no different even in the interview area. “There is a bold inscription that reads that the room accommodates only 150 people but the last time we were there, there were not less than 300 people in there and some of us had to stand for almost three hours before getting a seat,” the family head said. At the Spanish embassy, the situation was not different as visa applicants had to queue to enter the embassy. At the French embassy, visa applicants sit outside under the barest cover and still at the mercy of the sun, a situation that cannot be said to be comfortable. Another mission that is not doing enough for its applicants is the High commission of the Republic of South Africa. Most applicants that The Finder saw were standing in the sun as they waited for their turns to pass through the gate. A visit to the visa section of the High Commission of theUnited Kingdom, one of the most patronized in the country, showed that there were enough seats for applicants, with some empty seats evident. The German embassy visa section is another place where applicants appear to be treated with dignity as they are given comfortable places to sit while waiting to enter the main visa building. Applicants appear protected from the vagaries of the weather. At the Italian embassy a make-shift shed with wooden chairs have been provided for visa applicants.




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.



Diplomatic history: Nixon called ambassadors ‘eunuchs’

When President Nixon gave testimony to a grand jury in the summer of 1975, he had already been pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, for any crimes he might have committed while serving in the White House. So the purpose of his sit-down with federal lawyers onMonday, June 23, 1975, was for the disgraced former president to speak frankly about what he knew. Among the topics of interest to federal lawyers was whether Nixon or his aides had ever offered ambassadorships to campaign donors in exchange for cash. When questioned about the topic, an indignant Nixon rambled candidly. “Major posts” to countries such as France, Britain and Japan were considered priorities in the Nixon White House, while posts to smaller countries were not important enough for the president to get personally involved in the selection process, he said. “As far as other ambassadorial assignments were concerned, ambassador to Luxembourg or El Salvador or Trinidad, et cetera, it was not vitally important, as far as the national interest was concerned, to have in that post an individual whose qualifications were extraordinary,” he said. In some cases, Nixon said, those posts went to campaign contributors. That’s how it had always been done. “I would say, looking at the smaller countries likeLuxembourg, that Perle Mesta wasn’t sent toLuxembourgbecause she had big bosoms,” he said, referring to the socialite whom President Truman made ambassador toLuxembourg. “Perle Mesta went toLuxembourgbecause she made a good contribution.” “But may I say she was a very good ambassador inLuxembourg,” he continued. “And when you talk about selling ambassadorships, I don’t want the record of this grand jury even to indicate that people of wealth, because they do make contributions, therefore should be barred from being ambassadors.” No, Nixon felt that “some of the very best ambassadors we have been non-career ambassadors who have made substantial contributions.” “As far as career ambassadors, most of them are a bunch of eunuchs,” he said. “And I don’t mean that in a physical sense, but I meant it in an emotional sense, in a mental sense. They aren’t for the American free enterprise system.” Nixon’s frankness continued throughout the discussion. He referred to the island nation ofSri Lanka, then known asCeylon, as a “God-awful place” and again called State Department employees “emotional eunuchs.”



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.



Consular affairs: Weird world of consular requests

Asking for rock superstar Phil Collins’ telephone number and checking on the Prince of Wales’ shoe size are among the odd requests made to British consular staff abroad, it has been revealed. Records also showed that staff in Spain were asked by a man to contact a dominatrix who had left him stranded at the airport. A man rang the consulate in Sydney to ask what clothes he should pack for his holiday while a Briton in Sofia, Bulgaria, wanted the consulate to sell his house for him. A woman in Moscow wanted embassy staff to visit her flat to get something done about a loud buzzing noise there, while a consulate in Greece were asked how to put a chicken coop up in a man’s garden. In Florida, a man called the consulate to report there were ants in his holiday villa and asked what he should do, while another hopeful caller asked consular staff in Dubai to meet his dog at the airport and help the pet through customs as he would be away when the animal arrived. A caller asked staff in Malaga in southern Spain in mid-September where she could get a Christmas lunch as everywhere she had phoned was already booked up. Staff in Greece were asked for tips on the best fishing spots and where to purchase good bait. The caller – to foreign office staff in Spain – who wanted Prince Charles’ shoe size wanted the information so he could send him shoes as a present. Consular Affairs Minister Jeremy Browne said: “We will always try to help where we can but there are limits to the support that we can provide. It is important that people understand the level of help we can offer. “Our priority is to help people in real difficulty abroad and we cannot do this if our time is diverted by people trying to use us as a concierge service. We need to be able to focus primarily on helping victims of serious crimes, supporting people who have been detained or assisting people who have lost a loved one abroad.”



Consular affairs: Consulates expand in Mumbai as India grows

Foreign consulates with their gun-toting security guards have been iconic addresses in south Mumbai since the sixties. Later this month, the US consulate will bring down curtains on one such recognizable structure-the Lincoln House in Breach Candy-and move to a spanking new and more spacious setting in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). The consulate’s expansion and its northbound move are in keeping with a transition that is underway across foreign service offices in the city. Many consulates are witnessing a ballooning of staff, services and offices in recent years, in what foreign affairs experts believe is a sign ofIndia’s growing importance on the global stage. Australia plans to double its diplomatic staff strength in Mumbai; Britain has been expanding the scope of its work here; and, a few months ago, the New Zealand consulate opened a new office in BKC. Experts estimate that there are roughly 80 diplomatic missions in Mumbai. The buzz is palpable in diplomatic circles. The US consulate’s shift from its 53-year-old address, for instance, was necessitated by the need for a larger office space to accommodate its ever-increasing services. “Our new home reflects the overall trend of US-India ties. Our relationship withIndiais growing and modernizing, and our Consulate must do the same,” saysUSConsul General Peter Haas. The optimism is most evident in the Australian consulate. Till mid-2010, it had only one Australian staffer in the city; today, it has many more diplomatic staffers on board. It now plans to double its staff strength and relocate its offices to Crescenzo in BKC by next February. The British Deputy High Commission was the first to make the shift from south Mumbai to BKC in 2008 in the wake of furious Indo-British engagement on business and visas-a decision Peter Beckingham, British Deputy High Commissioner forWestern India, describes as “a sound move.” A spokesperson of the British Deputy High Commission in Mumbai estimates their visa operations in India to be the UK’s largest in the world-they processed around half a million visas last year. The complex also houses the trade development agencies ofScotlandandNorthern Ireland. Consular growth also reveals the city’s business trajectory. Anais Rieu, attache de presse from the Consulate General of France, told TOI that their decision to move base to BKC in December 2010 was taken since they noticed the centre of gravity of Mumbai moving towards the area.



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.