Incident at sea puts Indian-Italian ties in rough waters
Indian airports were put on alert Friday to prevent Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving the country as a diplomatic stand-off between Rome and New Delhi over the killing of two Indian fishermen by Italian marines escalated.
An incident on the high seas that evolved into a diplomatic storm snowballed into a tempest on Friday as Indian airports were put on alert to prevent the Italian ambassador to India from leaving the country.
The alert was issued by the Indian Home Ministry, according to the Press Trust of India, a day after the country’s Supreme Court prevented Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving India following Rome’s refusal to return two marines charged with the murder of two Indian fishermen last year.
The crisis has been slowly brewing since February 15, 2012, when two Italian marines shot two Indian fishermen off the coast of the southern Indian state of Kerala. The marines, who were arrested by Indian authorities shortly after the incident, said they believed the fishermen were pirates.
Rome has argued that since the incident occurred at sea, the case should be tried in Italy. But Indian authorities say the killings took place in waters under its jurisdiction.
Last month the two marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, were granted permission to leave the country to vote in Italian general elections after their ambassador signed an affidavit personally assuring the court that the two marines would return to India after the elections.
But on Monday, Rome formally informed the Indian government that “Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone will not be returning to India upon expiration of the leave granted them”.
Quoting James Bond, opposition cites ‘enemy action’
The decision sparked a furore across India, with an opposition leader calling for an end to “diplomatic niceties” between the two countries. Addressing parliament earlier this week, opposition politician Arun Jaitley quoted the Ian Fleming character James Bond when he described Italy’s decision as “enemy action”.
“This is very embarrassing for India,” said FRANCE 24’s Natacha Butler, reporting from New Delhi. “The Indian government has been really slammed, especially by the media, over the past few days. Many people here say the government has been taken for a ride by Rome and many are wondering why the marines could not have voted here via the Italian embassy in New Delhi.”
Demonstrators angry with the Indian government’s handling of the case burned an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the fishermen’s home state of Kerala, while the Indian leader said the Italian government’s decision was “unacceptable” and warned of “consequences”.
An unprecedented spat with international legal ramifications
But with public anger mounting in India and Italy, the outcome of the latest diplomatic stand-off is far from clear as legal experts on both sides debated a slew of international conventions on diplomatic immunity and jurisdiction on the high seas.
The Indian Supreme Court’s decision to bar the Italian ambassador from leaving the country appears to be in contravention of Article 29 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that diplomats shall "not be liable to any form of arrest or detention".
On the matter of marine jurisdiction, the two countries have been locked in a dispute over the interpretation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Italy argues that since the ship was on the high seas, exclusive jurisdiction of the case belongs to the “flag state” of the marine vessel, which would mean Italy.
The Indian Supreme Court, however, has rejected these arguments, noting that the February 2012 shooting should not qualify as an “incident of navigation”.
“I can’t think of another case like this and I don’t know how this will stand up to international law,” said Mira Kamdar, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and author of “Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World”. “But the real question right now is how can this dispute be resolved? Clearly, it can’t be done in India or Italy, so where can this be resolved?”
Targeting Italy, Sonia Gandhi and ‘Rome Raj’
Many experts believe that a solution to the growing diplomatic crisis lies in third-party arbitration – either by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg or the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
But as India heads for a critical general election in 2014, there appears to be little appetite among Indian politicians across ideological and party lines for an internationally mediated arbitration.
“There’s an element of hypocrisy here,” said Kamdar. “This is not simply a matter of sovereignty or respect for Indian law. There’s clearly a political agenda here with the [ruling] Congress Party showing that it’s standing up to a foreign government and especially to Italy.”
The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long had Italy in their sights since the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the Congress Party. While Gandhi, the widow of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, became an Indian citizen 30 years ago, BJP politicians tauntingly refer to the 66-year-old politician as “Rome Raj” or Rome’s rule.
Over the past few days, BJP officials have slammed Prime Minister Singh for allowing Italy to treat India “like a banana republic”.
Relations between India and Italy have already been soured by corruption allegations surrounding a $748-million deal for the purchase of 12 Italian helicopters, which the Indian government is now threatening to scrap.
While few analysts expect a break in Indo-Italian ties, the latest incident has put severe strains on bilateral relations. "The latest case may not lead to the breaking of diplomatic ties between the two countries,” said FRANCE 24’s Constantin Simon, reporting from New Delhi. “But the relations right now are certainly frozen.”