If you’re on vacation and get arrested and thrown into a foreign jail, how do you get word out about your situation and how do you get released?
There are stories in the news about attempts by governments to get their nationals back home - with more or less success. We usually hear Prime Ministers or Presidents discussing the progress of these cases.
The names you will never hear in the news are the names of the people who will be informed of your arrest, arrange visits to ensure you are well treated and, often, will broker you release. These people are consular officials.
I had the privilege of interviewing one of these individuals – an experienced consular official who has worked internationally. Since her name is unknown to most people except those who work with her, I’ll call her Undercover. Many of Undercover’s stories – told over a leisurely dinner – can’t be shared. The details can be recognized and many are secret.
Undercover pointed me to a document, The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, that is a multilateral treaty that codifies consular rights and obligations and is the cornerstone of consular relations. “The treaty makes it possible for [your country] to assist its nationals abroad while respecting the sovereignty of other countries”
Undercover points out that “You are subjected to the local laws in foreign countries.” This is a statement that one should not take lightly. The laws in foreign countries may be quite unexpected.
Take Singapore for example:
“Tourists that visit Singapore are allowed to bring chewing gum with them, but only a maximum of two packs per person. Any more than that and they will be susceptible to be charged with "gum smuggling" which carries the penalty of one year in jail and $5,500 fine. People that are caught with leaving chewing gum remains in the public space can be charged with the monetary fine, community work, or often - public beating with the bamboo stick.”
So, what happens when someone is arrested in a foreign country, when they may not even be aware of the local laws? “When a foreign national is arrested in a country, the country that detains them has to inform the embassy and request consular access. If there is no embassy, they have to inform an accredited embassy in the region.”
“Someone in the region has to start the process of consular access.” This is to verify the nationality of person and to determine whether the person is being treated properly and it is no small matter. We have heard of detainees in foreign countries who have been tortured and raped, so, consular access - and the knowledge that these people will be visited and watched over, is important protection for them. This access can be daily, weekly or monthly.
How is someone’s release negotiated? This is negotiated by consular officials, often based on relationships, with police and the officials of the host country. Many times the consular official will point out how this will cause bad publicity and it would be preferable to have the person released into their custody.
“Sometimes it is just saying ‘This is not a bad kid, let’s get this person out of your country’,” says Undercover. “Sometimes, there is another dimension to the crimes committed and the authorities are angry. In some countries, someone may be arrested for the human rights work they are doing but they are held onto because they are angry the person is gay.”
“A country can also take someone into custody on spurious charges like espionage, but they are using this person to achieve some political end. This could even be to get their companies considered for contracts.” Or to make a political point.
Lack of consular access and consular negotiations can be extremely dangerous. Take the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student who was arrested in 2016 in North Korea for taking a poster from his hotel room and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. After 17 months, he was medically evacuated from North Korea and returned home “in a state of unresponsive wakefulness” and died within a week.
So, when we travel, what keeps us safe, what saves us at the worst of times, is so often laws – in this case international laws. But it is the also personal relationships and contacts consular officials have in the host countries that are crucial. Without these personal connections on the ground, more travellers would spend more time in difficult situations. The people who find us and keep us safe and often negotiate our release are people whose names the public will never know.
After our long dinner hearing Undercover’s stories, I was left pondering how these consular officials and their often covert work has the making of a great novel. I was also left wishing that I could share some of the stories I heard. I hope one day these stories are written.