Kerre McIvor

Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre McIvor: Art of diplomacy? Bah humbug!

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Mohammed Rizalman bin Ismail.
Mohammed Rizalman bin Ismail.

What a complete cock-up on the part of our Foreign Affairs officials over the case of the Malaysian diplomat who has been accused of burglary and sexual assault.

Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail, a defence staffer at his government's embassy, was allowed to leave New Zealand after diplomatic immunity was invoked by his government.

In the wake of the matter becoming public, there have been, quite rightly, howls of outrage.

Several diplomats based in New Zealand over the years have used the waiver to flee the country on serious charges - the most serious was the case of a drink-driving Chilean diplomat who caused the death of a Wellington woman.

The Government assured the public it had done all it could to keep the Malaysian man here to face an investigation but it was powerless after the long-standing convention of diplomatic immunity was invoked.

Now it appears the Government's claim is rubbish. Oh sure, the paper trail seems clear. New Zealand officials asked Malaysia to waive its right to diplomatic immunity for its staff member; the Malaysian Government said no. But diplomacy will often involve off-the-record conversations, nudges and winks. There are understandings between officials that never make it to public record.

And that seems to be what happened here. Officially, a New Zealand MFAT staffer would have asked for the Malaysian Government to keep Rizalman in this country to face questioning over the alleged sexual assault of a young woman. Unofficially, he or she would have said if the Government whisked bin Ismail out of the country and perhaps put him through a court martial for form's sake, that would do.

The fact that this unofficial nudge-nudge, wink-wink, comes at a time when New Zealand is looking to curry favour with its friends around the globe as the Government seeks a seat on the UN Security Council also makes me deeply suspicious.

The Malaysian Government has acted honourably for its part. Once it realised that New Zealand officials had stuffed up, it promised to send Rizalman back to New Zealand to co-operate fully with the authorities and to assist police with their investigations.

It said it has "complete faith in the New Zealand legal system and has full confidence that Mr Muhammad Rizalman will be given fair treatment with dignity as provided under the law".

Given the inept bungling of MFAT staff you'd forgive them for wondering whether there's incompetence throughout all government departments.

It also seems incomprehensible that the chief executive of MFAT, John Allen, and Minister Murray McCully knew nothing of the affair until the Herald on Sunday raised questions last week. Incompetent idiots or a dysfunctional department? You choose. And it's appalling McCully's first call was to grovel to John Key for putting his boss in it, rather than apologise to the alleged victim of the sexual assault. Typical, but appalling.

McCully or Allen needs to take responsibility for the mess because the effects of this fiasco will be enormous. The master of the dark arts, as McCully was once known, has been made to look a rank amateur.

• Kerre McIvor is on Newstalk ZB, Monday-Thursday, 8pm-midnight

- Herald on Sunday

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