Final Word

Al-Bashir and the ‘art’ of diplomacy


The after-effects of the diplomatic storm South Africa found itself in recently concerning a visit to, and escape from, the country by President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, will be with us and our ambassadors for some time to come.

Judged by the history of the ‘art of diplomacy’ over thousands of years – probably back into pre-recorded history – one should not be surprised by the controversy the incident caused. Neither will it be the last time such a controversy occurs.

Will we ever know the full truth of what happened behind the scenes or outside the public eye in the Al-Bashir affair?

Probably not. It is not for nothing that Ambrose Bierce in his 1906 The Devil’s Dictionary described diplomacy as “the patriotic art of lying for one’s country”.

And, Jules Cambon, the French diplomat who was involved in peace negotiations between the USA and Spain in the 1890s, said “the day secrecy is abolished, negotiations of any kind will become impossible”.

Considering the central role that the issues of ‘diplomatic immunity’ and ‘amnesty’ have played in the Al-Bashir controversy concerning the warrant for his arrest, there is some perspective to be gained from Bierce’s definition of the concept of amnesty: “The state's magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.”

Origin of ‘diplomacy’

The origin of the word ‘diplomacy’ does not nearly lie as far back in history as that of ‘art’ or ‘discipline’, and goes back ‘only’ to the Roman Empire and the practice of issuing travel documents to its emissaries travelling on the roads of the empire.

The word used then was diplomaticos from diplocatis, meaning ‘official document conferring a privilege’. Diplocatis, in turn, came from the Greek word, diploma, for a paper folded double, representing a license or chart.

Modern Latin then got diplomaticus, referring to collections of international treaties or agreements – originally with reference to the text, but over time also to refer to international relations in general.

The French borrowed the word and concept in the late 18th century as diplomatie. They also called their officials responsible for conducting foreign legation, the corps diplomatique.

Anglicising the French term, Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, author and political theorist who became a member of the House of Commons of Great Britain, was the first to introduce the word ‘diplomacy’ into English in 1796.

The practice of diplomacy in relation to groups/tribes of nations, besides its additional modern meaning of being tactful in general, goes back much further than the word we know today.

In the Old Testament of the Bible one finds the Hebrew words tsir (used repeatedly for ‘one who goes on and errand’), malak (for a ‘messenger’) and melits (‘an interpreter’). The context of these terms includes: to contract alliances (Joshua 9:4 ), to solicit favours (Numbers 20:14 ), to remonstrate when wrong was done (Judges 11:12 ), to condole with a young king on the death of his father (2 Samuel 10:2 ), and to congratulate a king on his accession to the throne (1 Kings 5:1 ).

One also finds the application of the practice of diplomacy in Greek mythology.  Hermes, the brother of Apollo, is employed by Zeus for the most sensitive diplomatic missions, and he came to be regarded by the other gods as the intermediary between the upper and lower worlds.

I can imagine some cynics remarking in the context of what at times passes for diplomacy today, that it is fit that the Greeks also regarded Hermes as the patron of travellers, merchants and thieves.

While the practice of what we today regard as diplomacy became well established during the golden era of the Greek city states as early as 600 BC, documents were also discovered describing the exchange of envoys between ancient Egyptian pharaohs and close-by monarchies as far back as 1 278 BC. And there are known examples of what can be described as diplomatic immunity between Australian aborigine tribes.

Ancient ‘American-style’ diplomacy

Some students of diplomacy today will tell you that there is even a historical example of the present-day style of diplomacy followed by the Americans.

The Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire (5th century to 1 453 AD), is said to have grown partly through employing strategies of weakening ‘barbarians’ by inciting rivalry between different groups and securing the allegiance of frontier tribes through money and flattery. In the process the Byzantines, in playing off despots against one another, employed as ‘diplomats’ trained observers who could provide reports about their internal politics. Today we would describe them as spies rather than ambassadors.

The word ‘ambassador’, by the way, first arrived in late Middle English, from the French word ambassadeur, from Italian ambasciator, based on Latin ambactus, meaning ‘servant’.

As formally defined and recognised at the Congress of Vienna (1815), ambassadors were originally regarded as personal representatives of their countries’ chief executives, rather than of the whole country, and their rank entitled them to meet personally with the head of state of the host country.

Immunity and amnesty

And finally, since the concepts played such an important role in the Al-Bashir affair, let’s take a quick look at the concepts ‘immunity’ and ‘amnesty’.

‘Immunity’ is today more commonly known for its use in the medical field, as being exempt from disease or resistant to it. In that sense it has been around since 1881. The original term is actually anchored in the political/legal sphere and goes back to the days of the Roman Empire and the Latin word immunis, meaning ‘exempted from public service, free from taxes’. It arrived in late Middle English to mean ‘exemption from liability’.

Again, the concept of diplomatic immunity goes far back in history and existed between ancient tribes to facilitate the exchange of information. Messengers were allowed to travel from tribe to tribe without fear and were protected even when they brought bad news.

The concept was cemented in modern international relations by being agreed on as international law in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961).

The word and concept of ‘amnesty’, meaning ‘pardon from past offenses’, dates back to the 1570s in English and comes from the French word amnestie, meaning ‘intentional overlooking’.

The root of the term is the Latin word amnestia, originally from the same word in Greek, meaning ‘forgetfulness’. It also lives on in the word ‘amnesia’, still used today as the medical term for loss of memory.

It is, however, very unlikely that the international community will soon, if ever, develop amnesia concerning the Al-Bashir affair.


by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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