Britain looks for ways to stop diplomatic violence

An unarmed British policewoman gunned down in the streets of London. A former Nigerian Cabinet minister seized, drugged, and crated up for confinement back to Lagos.

Such unprecedented acts of diplomatic violence have outraged Britain, which sees itself as a model of legality.

What Britons are increasingly asking themselves is: What sort of protection does a law-abiding country have against those who brazenly flout accepted norms of international behavior?

The foiling of a bizarre plot to abduct former Nigerian Cabinet minister Umaru Dikko is only expected to increase pressures to put a stop to externally inspired acts of diplomatic violence.

The British government, a prime mover in strengthening international law against terrorism, is currently reviewing the 1961 Vienna Convention to see what changes it could make to avoid the abuses of diplomatic privilege.

The review was in direct response to the April shooting of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher from within the walls of the Libyan People's Bureau (embassy). The incident caused an uproar in Britain because diplomatic immunity enabled the expelled Libyans to leave the country without having their luggage inspected. The bags were suspected to have concealed the ''smoking gun'' involved in the shooting.

Less than three months later on July 5, Mr. Dikko, former Nigerian transport minister, was kidnapped outside of his plush Bayswater home, and drugged so he could be secreted out of the country in a wooden crate labeled ''Diplomatic baggage.''

The Nigerian Airways plane that was presumably waiting to ferry Mr. Dikko home was released after intensive police questioning. In return, the Nigerian government freed a British Caledonian aircraft held in Nigeria in retaliation for the British action.

Although the freeing of the planes has lessened political tension between the two countries, it leaves unresolved a diplomatic crisis if Britain should press charges against any Nigerian diplomats linked with Mr. Dikko's abduction.

The issue of how the Vienna Convention will be applied becomes problematic if the Nigerians involved request diplomatic immunity.

For both Nigeria and Britain, major trading partners and Commonwealth brethren, the latest crisis is exceedingly awkward and embarrassing. Unlike Libya, which prides itself on its revolutionary credentials, the military leaders of Nigeria, who took over in a bloodless coup on New Year's Eve, have striven for international recognition and respectability.

Seizing power was justified as the only recourse to eradicate a corrupt government exploiting the people. Much of the military government's credibility and early acceptance lay in the Nigerian public's willingness to believe the new government would succeed in bringing down prices and ending corruption.

If any person was seen as a symbol of a have/have-not syndrome of the previous administration - in which profligate life styles contrasted grotesquely with mass poverty - it was Umaru Dikko. His Mary Antoinette-like comment that he didn't see any starving people eating out of rubbish bins did more than anything else to incense Nigerians.

''It was incredibly insensitive,'' said a well-placed Nigerian after the coup.

A Western diplomat interviewed in Lagos a week after the coup said the government's campaign to root out corruption would only become credible if it ignored the ''small fish'' and went for the ''bigger fish.'' But by then, Mr. Dikko, disguised as a priest, had fled to London with a few of the other ''fat cats,'' as they were known in Nigeria.

However much popular support there may be in Nigeria for the abduction of Mr. Dikko, the Nigerian government denies any complicity, and has attacked those who insinuate as much.

Suspicions of some Nigerian involvement linger because two wooden crates carrying four people - the drugged Mr. Dikko and one person keeping him under sedation in one crate and two accomplices in the other - were consigned to the Ministry of External Affairs in Lagos by the Nigerian High Commission (embassy) in London. At least two cars bearing Nigerian diplomatic license plates were parked near a Nigerian aircraft which only flies very infrequently to Stansted Airport, and a Nigerian diplomatic attache was present on the scene to open up the crates when ordered to do so.

British sources, moreover, are curious why, if the Nigerian government was not involved in the incident, it should have detained the British Caledonian aircraft.

The British government, meanwhile, is embarrassed by the incident and will be even more so if investigations show the abduction was sanctioned at the top by a government with close ties with London. Many of the Nigerian military leaders are products of such famous institutions as Sandhurst and the Grenadier Guards.

But the British, still smarting under the accusation that they bungled the Libyan affair in allowing the alleged murderer of Yvonne Fletcher to go free, are taking some comfort from the fact that the kidnapped plot was foiled at the airport.

British official sources insist that it was precisely because of their meticulous observance of the Vienna Convention that the plot was thwarted.

Under Section 4 of Article 27, the Convention states categorically that the packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character, and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use. The crates in question failed to adequately satisfy these requirements.

The dispatchers of the wooden crates also failed to make a subtle but highly significant distinction between a diplomatic bag, which is exempt from searches, and diplomatic baggage, which is only exempt in certain circumstances.

Failure to appreciate the difference allowed the British authorities to open up the crate and discover the human cargo.

After the Nigerian embassy in London, headed by Maj. Gen. H. A. Hananiya, denied any involvement in the incident, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, said that in these circumstances he expected the full cooperation from the Nigerian authorities in the investigation that would now be made, including a waiver of diplomatic immunity if necessary in order to ensure justice was done.

Whether Nigeria, if pressed on charges, will waiver diplomatic immunity is the intriguing question of the moment.

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