|Embassy Barometer Embassy 18 July/August 2009
Are local staff worth the risk in hostile countries?
Corps divided over local embassy staff risk
The issue of foreign ministries employing local staff at their embassies in hostile countries has split London’s diplomatic corps, a survey of diplomats and embassy staff has revealed.
According to the Embassy poll, a majority (55%) of respondents said local staff were a valuable asset to missions but a significant minority (45%) said the risk of intimidation posed to locally employed staff and the potential for security leaks were not worth the benefit gained.
The issue has become more pertinent with the recent arrest of British Embassy staff in Tehran. Although all nine were finally released, one member of staff, the Embassy’s chief political analyst, will still face trial for “harming national security” due to his alleged involvement in fomenting riots following the disputed presidential elections in June.
An FCO spokesman told Embassy that there were no plans in the Foreign Office to review their policy regarding employing local staff at their overseas missions.
Diplomats in favour of employing local staff, wrote to Embassy to say that local staff were considered “the backbone” of their embassy, providing cost-effective local knowledge and continuity.
“There are a lot of positive things that can be accomplished with locally-hired staff.?The issue of vulnerability only occurs in extreme and exceptional cases,” remarked one respondent from a Southeast Asian mission.
Local staff, who were also invited to participate in the poll, said they were prepared to take the risk. For some, the issue was about “making a living”; others said working for embassies exposed them to different cultures.
However, many diplomats were concerned not only for the safety of local staff, but for the potential security risk they posed in hostile countries.
As one Eurpean diplomat told Embassy: “In a hostile country there is the issue of loyalty to consider. You cannot be loyal to both your native country and a foreign state at the same time. When the relations become critical, a problem of a security risk will inevitably arise.”
Many commented that jobs for local staff should be limited to administrative tasks. One Latin American diplomat criticised the FCO for endangering staff members “by putting them in positions of such high authority” at the embassy. “This will lead to allegations of spying and when relations deteriorate the staff are hung out to dry with absolutely no protection.”
Another respondent from the Caribbean said local staff should be made aware of the risks posed before they were hired. “Provisions should be made for legal representation if difficulties arise, at the cost of the hiring embassy,” she added.