The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) gave a briefing on consular services, with a particular emphasis on the services provided by a country to its citizens abroad. Its assistance consisted mainly of qualified support to citizens who were distressed or destitute, consular notarial services and civic/immigration services. Consular assistance was aimed at protecting the interests of the country’s nationals abroad, in keeping with customary international law and practice and the obligations any Government had towards its citizens. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963 was the primary reference, as it described the legal environment for consular relations between signatory states and the rights and duties of such states. The mandate of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) was closely tied with that of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) because dealings with immigration and civic services rendered at missions abroad were coordinated by DHA in Pretoria. It was stressed that both DIRCO and the missions abroad must respect the sovereignty of countries, could not intervene in private matters, get a person out of jail, or pay ransoms. It was also stressed that diplomatic protection was at the behest of the State and no individual could claim this as of right, although governments had an obligation to consider requests and keep notes of actions taken.
The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) had identified key challenges in this area, which included the increasing number of SA nationals travelling abroad, growing incidents of SA nationals involved in emergencies such as natural or man-made disasters, and other issues such as hostages and detentions. The Department was also concerned about low public awareness on the role of consular services and this was directly linked to the low number of South Africans - only 300 - registering for Registration of South African Abroad (ROSA) per month, increased complexity of consular cases as this was the case in Nigeria disaster and also increasing number of South Africans arrested abroad as so called drug mules. Current matters included kidnappings in Yemen, Mali, detention of a citizen in Equatorial Guinea and the collapse of a building in Nigeria that caused death and injury to South Africans. More detail was provided on the latter situation.
The Members asked whether there was someone monitoring the outcomes in the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to ensure that there was accountability in the provision of consular services for prisoners abroad. They asked about the turnaround time in processing overseas applications as this had an impact on tourism in the country, and asked several questions on the reasons for the delays in the process in Nigeria, where the bodies were kept, and whether cremation was an option, as also about what would happen to the bodies of those who were from SADC countries. They wanted to know if consular services were mandatory. They suggested that amendments were needed to the National Disaster Management Act to be able to deal with different calamities like the Nigeria disaster. They wondered if Nigeria had approached DIRCO in assisting to bring back the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram. One Member suggested the Department should scrutinise the old and irrelevant treaties in the continent especially looking at the role of African Union (AU) in expediting the respond to humanitarian crisis. Members also asked what strategy was in place to protect the data integrity of the online Registration of South Africans Abroad, and whether the Department had any recourse if other countries were reluctant to cooperate on extradition matters, and how the Department would address cases where nationals were treated unfairly.
Consular Services: Department of International Relations and Cooperation briefing
Mr Victor Mditshwa, Acting Chief Director, Department of International Relations and Cooperation, extended an apology from Mr Jerry Matjila, Director-General of the Department and Mr C Ramashau, Deputy Director-General, who were unable to attend the meeting.
He noted that consular services were regarded as those services provided by a country to its citizens abroad. These consisted, in the main, of offering qualified support to citizens who were distressed or destitute, consular notarial services and civic/immigration services. Consular assistance was aimed at protecting the interests of the country’s nationals abroad in keeping with customary international law and practice and the obligations any Government had towards its citizens. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963 was the primary reference, as it described the legal environment for consular relations between signatory states, and the rights and duties of such states.
Mr Mditshwa took the Committee through the summary of consular services rendered. These included:
- Consular assistance in emergencies, which include providing a support service and coordinating Government efforts in hostage cases
- Assistance rendered to nationals abroad, in cases of political turmoil or natural or man-made disasters, as well as communicating on behalf of South African nationals abroad with the next-of-kin or a friend, in the event of an emergency
- Logistical support and non-financial assistance for South African nationals who were in hospital abroad or who may need to be repatriated to the country for urgent medical attention
- Advice, guidance and support to a custodial parent/guardian in matters of parental child abduction
- Consular assistance to South African nationals arrested or detained abroad
- Notification of the next-of-kin of arrested or detained persons abroad, if so requested in writing by the arrested or detained person
- Assistance with transfer of funds from next-of-kin to prisoners abroad
- Communication with the next-of-kin in the event reported death or life threatening illness or injury
- Providing non-financial logistical assistance with the importation of mortal remains or burials of the country’s nationals abroad
- Providing guidance to next-of-kin and liaison with relevant stakeholders in the search for missing persons abroad and determining the whereabouts of the country’s nationals abroad
The mandate of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) was closely tied with that of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) because dealings with immigration and civic services rendered at missions abroad were coordinated by DHA in Pretoria. The DHA dealt with immigration services and the visas rendered to foreigners, and the civic services rendered at missions abroad were aimed at South African nationals and included passport application, ID applications, and birth and death registrations. It was important for the DIRCO and missions abroad to respect the sovereignty of countries as the DIRCO could not enforce the SA Constitution and other Acts of Parliament and South African Court orders abroad. The DIRCO could not intervene in private legal matters and private legal disputes abroad, get a person out of jail or pay ransoms for hostages.
Mr Mditshwa indicated that diplomatic protection was an action taken by the State to protect its nationals against actions of another State, in respect of injury to the person or property of a national caused by a wrongful act or omission attributed to the latter State. All States had a right to extend diplomatic protection, which was exclusive to the State, so that the individual national could not claim the protection as a right. Government had the obligation to consider requests, establish an ad hoc committee and keep record of the actions taken. It was important to note that Government actions were not beyond scrutiny of the Court.
Some current high level cases included Mr Pierre Korkie, who was kidnapped in Yemen, Mr Stephen MacGowan who was kidnapped in Mali, Mr Daniel Janse van Rensburg who was detained in Equatorial Guinea and the recent building collapse in Nigeria, of the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN).
Mr Mditshwa identified key challenges and trends faced DIRCO. He said that these included:
- the increasing number of SA nationals travelling abroad
- Growing incidents of SA nationals involved in emergencies such as natural or man-made disasters and others such as hostages and detentions
- Low public awareness on the role of consular services
- Increased media interests in consular matters
- Increased complexity of consular cases - such as that of the Nigeria building collapse~
- The increasing number of South Africans arrested abroad as so called "drug mules".
In setting out the strategic issues for 2015 and beyond, the DIRCO was planning to focus more on public awareness and education on consular services, which was identified as a critical area, particularly since low public awareness on the role of consular services was identified as one of the key challenges. The reviewing of non-financial nature of consular services was another important point, as this was not supported by any financial obligation. The Department was exploring the utilisation of new technologies such as social media to communicate with nationals in distress.
Ms Lyn de Jong, Director: Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges, DIRCO, explained what had happened in Nigeria. The sleeping quarters at SCOAN in Lagos collapsed on 12 September 2014. Due to news and information blockage, the South African missions in Abuja and Lagos had received scant information in the first few days, but it was later estimated that 81 South African citizens had died. DIRCO requested that National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) should be activated and the disaster should be dealt with by the NATJOINTS as a coordinating mechanism. NATJOINTS was responsible for safety, security and intelligence in the country. The NATJOINTS was activated the same day, with the key departments attending, and the situation was analysed according to information available at the time and certain first order decisions were made to immediately address the situation.
Ms de Jong mentioned that NATJOINTS decided that an assessment team under the leadership of the Head of National Disaster Management,should be set up. The 28 injured were repatriated to the country and admitted to Steve Biko Hospital, with the Department of Social Development (DSD) providing psychological support to families. The main challenge now was the repatriation of the mortal remains of those who died. It should be noted that this was the first major disaster of this kind that the country was dealing with, and therefore there were likely to be some difficulties in identifying ways to deal decisively with these kinds of disasters. Mr Jeff Radebe, Head of the Inter-Ministerial Committees (IMC), had been briefing the public on developments and would soon be able to confirm the date as to when all the bodies would be returned. She highlighted that the Department will continue to fulfil its obligations to its citizens who were in distress abroad, as this was a sign of a caring nation and also in keeping with customary international law and practice.
Ms S Kaylan (DA) welcomed the presentation by the Department and asked whether there was someone monitoring the outcomes in the DHA, to ensure that there was accountability in the provision of consular services for prisoners abroad.
Ms Kalyan asked what the turnaround time in processing overseas applications was, pointing out that this had an impact on tourism in the country>
Ms Kalyan asked if the bodies of the South Africans in Nigeria were kept in the safest place, and asked how long it was likely to be that the families would have to wait for the repatriation of the bodies.
Mr Mditshwa responded that it was the duty of the DIRCO to make visit to the prisoners abroad, not the duty of DHA, and the Head of Mission monitored every aspect related to consular services.
Ms Kaylan interjected and reiterated that the DHA was involved in making visits to prisoners abroad, as she personally had paid one person a visit, together with a DHA official.
The Acting Chairperson said the only solution was for Ms Kaylan to provide the Department with the name of the person paid a visit, and the Committee could then follow up on this point.
Mr Mditshwa responded that it was possible that the person was an official from the DHA who was mandated by the ambassador, because of challenges related to the relevant consular services in the Mission.
Mr Mditshwa responded to the question on times by saying that in order to determine the turnaround time in processing overseas applications, the Department relied on the leadership, and also the management of the Mission, and each case would be dictated by the circumstances on the ground.
Ms de Jong responded that the bodies of the deceased in Nigeria were being held in three different mortuaries in Lagos and admitted that some of the mortuaries were of poor standard and there were reported cases of decomposition of some bodies.
Ms D Raphuti (ANC) said the presentation came at right time, as the country was still battling with increased numbers of SA nationals involved in emergencies such as natural or man-made disasters and other hostages. She commended the service that was rendered to citizens abroad, as it showed that the country cared for its people.
Ms T Kenye (ANC) expressed concern that the repatriation of bodies in the Nigeria disaster was happening only very slowly, and asked for the causes of such delays. She asked whether the Department contacted the relatives of those who were visiting the church for identification purpose. he also wondered if there was any possibility that Government could consult with the relatives as to whether they might not prefer a cremation process, if the bodies were decomposing.
Ms de Jong responded that the DSD was keeping the families in contact and they were already informed that they would not be able to see the bodies of their loved ones as they would be handed over in sealed coffins. Some of the bodies were able to be identified through fingerprints and the rest had to be identified through DNA. The delays were also related to the fact that the country needed to respect the sovereignty of Nigeria which was conducting investigations on the matter. The SA High Commissioner and the Consul-General had been working with the leadership of the church and other authorities, visiting the scene, and going to mortuaries in effort to provide assistance to all the affected citizens. As soon as the tests conducted at Stellenbosch were concluded, the task of recovering the remains from mortuaries, then repatriating the victims, would start. There was no possibility of cremation, as the relatives had indicated that they wanted the bodies back to be buried in a conventional way.
Ms Kenye asked if consular services were mandatory or voluntary, as this was not clear in the presentation. She commented that perhaps the National Disaster Management Act needs to be amended to be able to deal with different calamities like the Nigeria disaster
Ms de Jong agreed that the National Disaster Management Act needed to be reviewed in order that the country could be better prepared and ready to deal with major disasters, especially when considering the surge of major disasters around the world.
Ms Kenye asked if Nigeria had approached DIRCO for assistance in bringing back the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram.
Mr Mditshwa responded that as far as he knew, the Nigerian Government had not approached DIRCO to assist in bringing back the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram; but that DIRCO would be ready if requested to assist. He assured the Members that the relationship between the country and Nigeria remained cordial, despite the recent challenges. Nigeria showed a lack of capacity in using modern technology to identify the victims, and this had added to delays in the repatriation of bodies.
The Acting Chairperson asked about the limits of respecting the sovereignty of countries, referring in particular to cases where couples with different nationalities could marry in one country and then divorce in another.
Mr Mditshwa responded that the issue of sovereignty was looked into on the basis of further engagement with the country and the broader structured bilateral agreements between the two countries. The consular services were not independent as they were an integral part of the services that were rendered by an Embassy of South Africa abroad
Mr Ben Malan, Deputy Director of International Affairs, DIRCO, indicated that there were cases of South Africans who were married in South Africa but now living abroad, and the provision of consular services in this case was complicated and often required the intervention of the Department of Justice and Correctional Services
The Acting Chairperson asked what strategy was in place to protect the data integrity of the online Registration of South Africans Abroad (ROSA). He asked if the Department had any recourse in cases where another country was reluctant to cooperate in extradition treaties.
Mr Mditshwa indicated that the ROSA was protected in terms of ensuring that there was no one with access to the classified information of South Africans abroad, but he admitted that these safeguards could never result in an absolute guarantee that the data could not be hacked.
Ms M Moonsamy (EFF) asked about the way the other countries were dealing with the repatriation of bodies from Nigeria, and whether DIRCO was perhaps exploring alternatives to fast-track the process. There was a need to scrutinise the old and irrelevant treaties that South Africa had in the Continent especially looking at the role of African Union (AU). She suggested that the Department should review and amend the treaties to expedite the response to humanitarian crises.
Mr de Jong responded that there were different groups from different countries that visited SCOAN and the Department was also responsible for repatriating four bodies of the victims from the South African Development Community (SADC). The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963, was very relevant and was used throughout the world to create an order in how countries conducted engagements with each other. These conventions were also part of the Diplomatic Communities and Privileges Act, which had brought the requirements of the conventions into domestic law
Ms Kaylan asked if there were statistics on the number of people registering for ROSA, and wondered if there was a help-desk to assist with ROSA. She also asked when ROSA was formed.
Mr Mditshwa responded that there were help-desk offices available to assist people intending to make visits to other countries, as there were ambassadors responsible for that. The registration with the ROSA was also available online. ROSA was launched in 2008 and there was an average of 300 people that registered per month. This, however, was not moving with the pace that the Department wanted, and the Minister had thus doing public awareness programmes in universities, schools and communities to spread the message around the importance of consular services to the South Africans abroad.
Ms C Dudley (ACDP) questioned whether the Department was able to intervene in intra-country adoption matters.
Mr Malan responded that the mandate for intra-country adoption lay with the Department of Social Development, and that there was a specific section dealing with these cases. The Department did not deal with the technical aspect of intra-country adoption.
The Acting Chairperson asked if the Department would be able to intervene in a situation where a South African was arrested in a country that still used torture to extract information. He also asked who handled the situation where foreign nationals were changing their application status only when they were already in the country. He asked for more details on the responsibility of the Department in a situation where a South African was extradited by force.
Ms de Jong responded that the question on the new immigration laws fell within the DHA’s mandate but opined that the current immigration laws stipulated that no one was allowed to change his or her status whilst in South Africa.
Mr Malan responded that on the issue of torture or any unfair treatment of the South Africans abroad, the DIRCO would try its best to deal with the situation firstly through the diplomatic channels, but if this failed then the Department would be compelled to raise its concerns to the country through writing to the government. He reminded the Members that South Africans arrested were kept in the same facilities as all the local prisoners, and this made it extremely difficult to intervene in cases of unfair treatment. The last resort was to make reference to the Charter of the United Nations (UN).
Ms Kenye asked if the Department had already conducted research regarding the four SADC nationals involved in the Nigeria disaster.
Ms de Jong responded that all the families of the four SADC nationals involved in the Nigeria disaster resided in South Africa and it was therefore decided their bodies must be returned to this country.
Mr Mditshwa suggested that Members take the ROSA information to their various constituencies as a form of public awareness. The information on ROSA needed to be kept as confidential as possible and in a way that assured the people that their information would not be used for any other purpose except to assist, in the event of an emergency, whilst the person was abroad.
The Acting Chairperson expressed appreciation to the Department, and said the importance of the consular services was highlighted during the Nigeria disaster. He urged the Department to provide the Members with feedback regarding the issues requested.
The meeting was adjourned.
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