Austria’s hijacking of the Bolivian president
With a military coup in Egypt, Wimbledon, and Madiba’s illness, the hijacking of the Bolivian president’s plane in Austria seems to have escaped the notice of the chattering classes in South Africa. But the potential long-term consequences could be serious, and they are being taken very seriously in South America.
When Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was rerouted last night on the suspicion that it was carrying NSA leaker Edward Snowden out of Russia, outraged, frantic South American leaders spent the evening on the phone in an attempt to seek justice.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner recounted her experience of the crisis in a series of Tweets—demonstrating that not just Bolivia but much of South America was infuriated at the European breach of diplomatic immunity.
Next year I am sure many people will be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, which was started by Austria. Now it looks as though Austria has started a diplomatic crisis that could lead to a third world war.
As one Tweeter put it,
Next time Air Force 1 flies over South Africa I hope we force it to land to see if Shrien Dewani is on board (@SimonWillo).
The diplomatic conventions that were broken by Austria this week go back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and, while they have not prevented all wars, they have made it easier for nations to talk to each other in order to avoid armed conflict. For more on the significance of the Peace of Westphalia, see here.
General Carl von Clausewitz described war as “the continuation of policy by other means“. Since the Peace of Westphalia it has come to be thought that war is a last resort, when diplomacy fails. This is not always the case, of course. If people really want war, then they can bypass or short-circuit diplomacy, as Madeleine Albright did in the Nato war against Yugoslavia in 1999. But the diplomatic conventions that have evolved since 1648 have to some extent served as a restraint on war.
Among those diplomatic conventions is the concept of diplomatic immunity. The embassy of a country is regarded as part of its sovereign territory, and material carried in a diplomatic bag between an embassy and its home country has been regarded as immune from search by the authorities of the country in which the embassy is situated. If drivers of vehicles belonging to an embassy commit traffic offences, they are immune from prosecution.
I don’t know if Austria has an embassy in Bolivia, but if it has, they might not take kindly to Bolivian authorities searching their diplomatic bags, or impounding their vehicles for unpaid traffic fines. But what Austria has done to Bolivia by in effect hijacking the president’s plane is far more serious than that.
If the assumptions about international relations that have developed since the Peace of Westphalia are to be superseded, what will replace them?
Several years ago Samuel Huntington suggested that conflicts between nations would be superseded by a “clash of civilizations”, and that civilisations are largely defined by religion. Among the nine civilizations he listed were Western Civilization and Latin American Civilization. Austria represents the former, and Bolivia the latter.
And since, not long ago, much of Latin America was colonised by the West, it also raises the question of how “post” postcolonialism really is. Unlike the Somali pirates, the Austrian authorities eventually let the Bolivian president go without demanding a ransom, but they seem to be on a slippery slope. How far will things be allowed to slide?