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Envoys’ detention not isolated case

African envoys send letter of complaint to Foreign Ministry over incidents at Incheon Airport

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Published : 2014-05-25 20:52
Updated : 2014-05-25 20:52

An incident in the baggage area of the Incheon International Airport in which two African ambassadors were detained by customs officials earlier this month was not an isolated case, according to the South African ambassador here.

When South African Energy Minister Dikobe Ben Martins arrived here to attend a ministerial conference on clean energy on May 13, Incheon airport officials singled him out of a line and attempted to fingerprint him with a biometric scanner, South African Ambassador to South Korea Hilton Dennis said Tuesday.

Dennis said that airport security officials attempted to fingerprint Martins with the biometric scanner, even though he presented his diplomatic passport and documents accrediting him as a visiting senior government official. 
Passengers check in at Korean Air Lines counters at Incheon International Airport in this undated photo in Incheon.(Bloomberg)

“I had to intervene in this case and I protested his being fingerprinted vigorously,” Dennis said by phone on Tuesday. “If a host country permits somebody to come in with a diplomatic passport, then they are giving them certain privileges in terms of the Vienna Convention.”

Dennis said this was not the only time he had to intervene on behalf of a visiting government official. In August 2013, a senior South African government official was also singled out by airport security officials.

“We did communicate to (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) about this when it happened in August last year, but then it happened again two weeks ago, and I had to intervene.”

The Nigerian and Kenyan ambassadors were wrongly detained by customs officials on May 7, just days before Minister Martins was stopped.

Nigerian Ambassador Desmond Akawor and Kenyan Ambassador Ngovi Kitau were wrongly detained in the baggage area in front of other passengers by customs officials in what Kitau described as “racial profiling” at Incheon International Airport.

“Well, the question of whether Africa is being targeted is a valid one. That is the question that is being raised: Are we being targeted as Africans?” said Dennis.

The multiple airport incidents precipitated the group of African envoys here to send an official complaint letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, envoys said.

“We are aware of the situation, but we are still investigating what exactly happened at the airport,” said an official from the Africa Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I think it was probably an official who had little experience and is very ignorant of diplomatic practice and international law.”

The foreign affairs official said that the customs office had acknowledged that a “mistake happened,” adding he was not aware of the incident involving the South African minister of energy.

Phone calls to the Incheon Airport’s customs office by The Korea Herald on the situation were not returned.

The incidents and the subsequent complaint letter took place days before the annual Africa Day celebrations, to be held on May 27.

Senior officials from the Foreign Affairs Ministry and African envoys are expected to participate, including Foreign Affairs Minister Yun Byung-se who is expected to deliver a speech at a seminar and luncheon to mark Africa Day at the headquarters of the Federation of Korean Industries in Yeouido, Seoul.

The Africa Day celebrations mark the founding of the Organization of African Unity on May 25, 1963, which later became the African Union and is comprised of 54 member states.

Ambassador Akawor, who is dean of the group of African envoys here, said Monday the incidents at the airport and the Africa Day celebrations were separate issues, and he looks forward to a successful Africa Day this year.

In a meeting on Thursday, also attended by Kwon Hee-seog, director general of the Bureau for Africa and Middle East Affairs, African envoys discussed planning for the Africa Day celebrations and other issues.

The focus of Thursday’s meeting was Africa Day and not the incidents at the airport, Akawor said.

The celebrations were initially canceled by African envoys earlier this month out of sympathy for the families of victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy. 

Ambassador Akawor said a diplomatic bazaar that was coorganized by MOFA had been canceled, so the African envoys believed it would not be appropriate for them to celebrate Africa Day in South Korea.

But Kwon, the director general of Middle East and Africa affairs, called the Nigerian envoy on May 18 and requested Africa Day celebrations not be canceled, because “the mourning over the tragedy is starting to affect the economy,” Akawor said.

By Philip Iglauer (ephilip2014@heraldcorp.com)

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