State visit ended with diplomatic spat
September 16, 2011
A recent state visit to Norway ended on a sour note, when South Africa’s foreign minister refused to submit to routine security controls at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. After a loud verbal quarrel with airport security personnel, she ended up chartering a private jet, which allowed her to avoid having her purse examined.
Maite Emily Nkoana-Mashabane was part of South African President Jacob Zuma’s large delegation when he made a state visit to Norway August 31 and September 1. Despite Norway’s long record of supporting South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, the visit was not void of tension: Zuma was not pleased that Norway participated in the UN-backed and NATO-led bombing of Libya, and newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Friday that his foreign minister cancelled her first agreed meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre.
She later did meet with Støre, just before her departure from Norway on Friday September 2. But then, reports both DN and the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, things got worse.
Preferential treatment denied
Nkoana-Mashabane was granted a foreign ministry escort to the airport, where she intended to take a regularly scheduled Austrian Airlines flight on her way to deliver a speech in Bulgaria. But once at the airport, she was required to go through security like all other passengers, and she reportedly objected in the strongest of terms. Nkoana-Mashabane refused to turn over her bag, claiming she had diplomatic immunity and therefore didn’t have to submit to a bag search.
Security personnel and airport officials disagreed, saying only heads of state are immune from security checks in Norway. “Here at Oslo Airport we can’t treat members of governments from other countries any differently than we treat our own,” Jo Kobro, information chief at the airport, told DN. “We follow EU rules, and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg must also go through security controls. We’ve never had any trouble with him.”
But there was clearly trouble with South Africa’s government official. She flatly refused to hand over her bag, meaning she then was denied access to the departure terminal. After the loud exchange, she and her delegation left the airport and headed back to the Grand Hotel in Oslo, still under the escort of Norway’s foreign ministry. The ministry, however, “was not involved in the further travel arrangements for Nkoana-Mashabane’s delegation,” a ministry spokeswoman told DN.
Pricey private jet charter
The South African embassy in Oslo then reportedly took over, and Nkoana-Mashabane’s delegation left Oslo later that afternoon on a private jet from the general aviation terminal at Gardermoen, where security rules are different. The charter of the private jet cost EUR 23,500, according to officials at the South African foreign ministry.
They claimed that security officials at Oslo’s airport violated international law in connection with diplomatic immunity. They said Nkoana-Mashabane had nothing illegal in her bag, but that important principles were at stake. Norwegian aviation officials, however, maintained that all passengers are obliged to go through security controls before boarding a regularly scheduled flight. In Norway, only the royal family is exempt, and instead goes through what’s called an “alternative security check.”
Kobro said the security personnel at Gardermoen were simply doing their job, adding that it was very seldom that passengers refused to submit to security checks. “I remember one single incident when an ambassador refused to go through security control,” Kobro told DN. “He was also denied access to the terminal.”
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