Prestige at stakeLaws need to be made to ensure that competent people are appointed as ambassadors
The government’s recent ambassadorial appointments have raised questions about the qualification of the candidates and the overall selection procedure. The only rule governing the appointment of envoys is the constitution. Article 282 states that the President shall name ambassadors and other emissaries on the basis of the ‘principle of inclusion’. The law also says that Parliament has to ratify the nominations. The constitution has laid down the criteria for the appointment of the President, vice-president, judges and ministers and the qualifications the hopefuls must possess. Their terms of office, functions, duties and authority are also mentioned. Surprisingly, there is nothing with regard to the appointment of ambassadors.
This makes us ask the question, “Why not ambassadors?” The constitution does not say anything regarding the credentials and qualifications a potential ambassador needs to have. Neither does the constitution say anything about the maximum and minimum age limits for ambassadors nor the minimum educational qualification. Considering the role of ambassadors and their functions, it is astonishing to see that the constitution is silent on significant provisions related to their appointment.
In Nepal, potential ambassadors are generally named on two grounds—political appointee or career diplomat (someone engaged in the foreign service). The Supreme Court, in a recent case regarding Maya Kumari Sharma, the then ambassador of Nepal to Qatar, has clarified matters regarding the appointment of ambassadors. The court summarised that the only governing law regarding the appointment of ambassadors is indeed the one enshrined in the constitution. The service and status of ambassadors appointed from among the Foreign Ministry staff are guided and governed by the Nepal Foreign Affairs Service Regulation in line with the Civil Service Act, but the rules and laws regarding political appointees are very debatable.
The title ‘ambassador’ is more politically inclined and the appointment is governed by national and international laws. Due to the inadequacy of the laws of Nepal, we have to refer to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Although not mentioned in domestic regulations or procedures, an ambassador serving in the capacity of the head of the mission has to bear the primary responsibility of representing the sending state in the receiving state and protect the interests of the sending state and its nationals, negotiate with the government of the receiving state, promote friendly relations between the two states and develop their economic, cultural and other relations.
Nepal’s ‘spoils system’
By itself, there is nothing wrong with ambassadors being politically appointed. Ambassadorial appointments based on political ideology or the proximity of the candidates to a political party are not and have never been an issue anywhere in the world. According to the American Foreign Service Association, 69.95 percent of the ambassadors appointed during the Obama administration were career diplomats and the rest were political figures. Current US President Trump has so far named three ambassadors (to China, Israel and the United Nations) and they are all political appointees.
Nepal follows the ‘spoils system’ where a political party, after winning an election, offers government jobs to its supporters, friends and relatives as a reward for their contribution to the victory and as an incentive to keep working for the party.This is completely justified, considering the example of even the most developed nations. However, given Nepal’s unstable government, which is likely to change within a year at times, changing ambassadors with every change in government is most likely to give a negative impression about appointed ambassadors in foreign countries.
Some ambassadors have to work harder than others to defend Nepal’s interest depending on where they are stationed. For example, an ambassador posted to a labour destination country is expected to play an important role in protecting the rights of Nepali migrant workers based there. Thus, the government has to appoint a competent individual as ambassador. Moreover, the level and significance of Nepal’s ties with foreign countries and its prestige are upheld by the ambassadors there. If an envoy should be declared persona non grata for undesirable conduct, that would be a severe blow to the country’s reputation. So the appointment process must ensure that the government does not appoint someone with questionable qualifications who might be thrown out by the host country.
The question is not so much whether an ambassador is a political appointee or a career diplomat, it is more whether the candidate is qualified and fit for the job. Are there any reasons offered by political parties regarding their nomination of potential ambassadors? Why is it always that the public only gets to know what their leaders want them to know? Democracy and rule of law are favourite topics among politicians, but whether transparency and accountability are part of democracy and rule of law is a big question mark. Another question is whether the government of Nepal will set a minimum threshold of competence and professionalism for prospective ambassadors. The adoption of a proper legislative framework to determine the competence and professional threshold of potential diplomats can strengthen the appointment process to a certain extent.
Devkota is a law graduate from Loyola University, Chicago