South African envoys face suspension

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Opposition politicians in South Africa are calling for the immediate suspension of a high-ranking diplomat at the South African Embassy in Oslo, and possibly South Africa’s ambassador herself, after the diplomat caused a head-on collision in Oslo. Norwegian police believe he was under the influence of alcohol, but he refused to be tested at the scene of the accident, claiming diplomatic immunity.

South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party claimed on its website that it was “dismayed” by the incident in Oslo last weekend, calling it a “gross act of diplomatic recklessness” that should be “strongly condemned.”

Norway’s foreign ministry called in South Africa’s ambassador to Norway on Monday, and took the unusual step of requesting that the diplomat’s immunity be revoked so that he could be charged in Norway. That came after police had informed Norwegian government officials that the same diplomat had been stopped by police in Oslo on an earlier occasion, also on suspicion of drunk driving.

“After that first incident, we asked for a meeting with the embassy,” Hilde Steinfeld of the Norwegian foreign ministry told newspaper VG. The meeting hadn’t been held by the time the second incident occurred late last Saturday night, involving the collision that injured a young Norwegian woman.

Still no answer from South Africa
South African Ambassador Queen Anne Zondo met up at the ministry as requested on Monday and has apologized for the accident, saying the young Norwegian woman injured in the collision also deserved an apology. She claimed, however, that it was up to government officials in South Africa to decide whether to revoke her First Secretary’s immunity.

Steinfeld at the ministry in Oslo said their request for the revocation had not been answered as of Friday morning. “There’s no formal deadline to answer such requests, but we have asked for a speedy reply,” she told VG.

The case is reportedly under investigation in South Africa, where Cape Town newspaper Cape Times claimed the government’s foreign ministry had “closed ranks” and dismissed the incident as “an accident that can happen to anyone.” The Democratic Alliance party claims that if South Africa’s ambassador in Oslo knew about the previous drunk driving allegation against the diplomat, and “failed to prevent this latest incident,” she should also be immediately suspended.

Norwegian officials have noted that they can declare the diplomat uønsket (unwelcome) in Norway, but said later this week that such a move was “speculative,” pending an answer on the immunity request from their counterparts in South Africa.

The case has revived debate around diplomatic immunity, and criticism that it can be abused. Berglund