Buck needs to stop for Mfat's botch-ups

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Last updated 05:00 03/07/2014

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OPINION: It's all too easy to call for heads to roll but it's hard to think of a more justified occasion than the diplomatic cock-ups by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) over the Malaysian diplomat accused of sexual assault.

It is a catalogue of unacceptable blunders with huge consequences.

And it's difficult to decide which is the worst.

The failure to inform its minister, Murray McCully, that on May 21 the Malaysians had considered the request of May 10 to waive diplomatic immunity and had rejected it?

The fact that the May 10 expression of the Government's position was the last McCully had heard of it until the New Zealand Herald started asking questions?

The failure to inform McCully of the informal talks - or at least the upshot of them - that led to the creation of "ambiguity" in the mind of Malaysia over New Zealand's previously unambiguous position?

The creation of the ambiguity in the first place?

The embarrassment caused to Prime Minister John Key and McCully - which in all probability would require McCully to at least proffer his resignation - and the subsequent misleading of the public?

The international embarrassment caused to New Zealand, and the potential for damage to the relationship with Malaysia, by the clear and unequivocal position the ministers had taken?

McCully was even moved to send a not-very-coded warning to the Malaysian Government on Tuesday that relations could be affected if this wasn't sorted and the accused man, Muhammed Rizalman Bin Ismail, was not brought to justice.

It had the potential to sour relations with an important regional friend. Those were strengthened during the co-operation at a military and aid level at the Bamiyan base in Afghanistan, where there was a strong Malaysian presence that brought a useful Muslim perspective to New Zealand's role there.

And no one should discount the pain that must be felt by the alleged victim at seeing all this aired so publicly, while the judicial process in New Zealand is stalled at least partly by mistakes that can be laid at Mfat's door.

It has to be said that Malaysia has emerged from this fiasco with credit.

It was the comment from its foreign minister that first alerted this country to the "ambiguity".

Far from the initial impression that Malaysia was applying the letter of the Vienna Convention in taking Rizalman home, it appears to have been open to waiving immunity. It is sure it was New Zealand that "offered an alternative for the accused to be brought back to Malaysia".

Malaysia has established a process that could lead to an effective court martial for Rizalman and has also said it could extradite him if New Zealand is not happy with the process.

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There are some other questions that go beyond the official level too which the Government needs to address.

Would the public ever have been informed of the "immunity waiver" without media inquiries in this and other cases?

The signals coming out of the Beehive are "probably not".

These cases should routinely be disclosed because the public have a right to know when the judicial system has been thwarted by the Vienna Convention and which countries invoke immunity, and in what circumstances.

There is no reason to shield any country from the New Zealand public's right to judge their actions in such instances, particularly where alleged criminality has occurred against a member of the public.

Some things are simply beyond any "diplomatic" instinct to repair and smooth relations.

Meantime, at a minimum Mfat chief executive John Allen needs to reassure the Government and the public of a number of things.

First that there was no back-room nod and wink in an attempt to smooth over a diplomatic problem at the risk of crossing the Government's wishes and moving the case out of our judicial system.

He also needs to explain how they fell so short of the required "no surprises" heads up to their minister.

But in the end it is beyond a "bad look".

McCully was steering away from discussing the r-word - resignation - in his own case and that of Allen or (rightly) any Mfat staff, saying the process had to be worked through. McCully and Key have both expressed continued confidence in Allen.

It would be adding another layer of problems, at the employment level, if a minister was seen to be commenting on the future of staff in the ministry without a proper process being followed.

But if someone doesn't offer - or hasn't already offered - to quit over this, then the system of accountability that flows through the chief executive to the minister and up to Key has failed.

- The Dominion Post

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