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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Blogs - the new diplomacy?
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

UN Sudan envoy Jan Pronk
Jan Pronk's blog on Darfur got him expelled
The attack on the government of Sudan by the UN's envoy Jan Pronk has perhaps pointed the way to a new kind of direct diplomacy - the diplomat's blog.

Mr Pronk was expelled from Sudan after government anger at comments he made on his personal website. The government accused him of "psychological warfare" after he wrote that government forces had suffered two defeats in Darfur and that it had broken Security Council resolutions.

The former Dutch cabinet minister is no stranger to controversy but his use of the internet to publicise his views is new and daring in diplomacy, which traditionally favours discretion.

His blog was startlingly detailed, the kind of information that is normally sent back, encoded, only to national capitals. Sometimes in a one-on-one talk, a journalist can get something similar from a lively envoy, but to get it in the raw on the internet is an innovation.

Refugee camp in Darfur
Pronk has criticised the government of Sudan over Darfur
For example, Mr Pronk wrote of Darfur: "The morale in the government army in North Darfur has gone down. Some generals have been sacked; soldiers have refused to fight... Security Council resolutions which forbid armed mobilisation are being violated."

He is given to public pronouncements on foreign policy. He once called for an "Iraq-style" intervention in Bosnia (Iraq-style as in the 1991 war to expel Iraq from Kuwait) long before the outside world took action.

When the Serbs massacred Bosnian Muslims following the fall of Srebrenica, he was a cabinet minister. He immediately and publicly accused the Serbs of genocide. He subsequently criticised the performance of the Dutch troops who were supposed to defend the town and resigned himself, followed by the whole government the next day.

Uzbek example

Another turbulent diplomat who would have loved a blog when he was trying to get his message over was Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004. He eventually fell out with the Foreign Office over his public criticism of the Uzbek government's human rights record.

You should be able to say more of what you really think - you can't have a cocktail party relationship with a fascist regime
Craig Murray
Former UK ambassador in Uzbekistan
He is now a private citizen but still campaigns and uses a blog to do so.

"I would have loved a blog when I was an ambassador, but they were not really invented then and I doubt even now if the Foreign Office knows what they are," he told me.

"I did get permission for a speech I made making my views public but I was told that approval had been given at too low a level, so I got into trouble.

"A diplomat's blog is a great idea. You should be able to say more of what you really think. You can't have a cocktail party relationship with a fascist regime."

Such diplomats break the traditional mould. I know that Mr Murray's actions upset many of his colleagues who feel that vigorous reporting should be confined to private messages back to base. It is then up to governments to act.

Update: I have had two e-mails pointing me to a blog by the British ambassador to Tunisia Alan Goulty! So the Foreign Office does know what a blog is.

One of the e-mails was from Luke Cholerton-Bozier, a consultant for the British Council and the embassy at the time of the World Information Summit in Tunisia. He says that it was his idea and he mentioned it to an embassy official. The blog is the result.

It is a mixture of politics and diplomatic life - and nothing controversial. The ambassador remarks on the Middle East peace process as well as issues like animal welfare. He invites comments which is a good part of any blog, leading in one posting to his rueful remark: "A correspondent in Gabes chides me for paying more attention to animal welfare in La Marsa than to poor people in the South. " He adds: "of course, both need help."

But what happens when, as in Mr Pronk's case, the diplomat feels that nobody is listening on a matter of great importance?

Armenian agony

There was a famous case during World War I when the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, started reporting his conclusion that Armenians were the subject of genocide by the Turks.

"It appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion," he wrote to the State Department.

His cables to Washington did not have much effect so he began to talk to the New York Times and other papers.

The modern equivalent might be to set up a personal website and talk directly to the world instead of to journalists.

Vibbi's verbosity

There was, on the other hand, the example of the young Croatian diplomat which governments are keen to avoid.

Recovering bodies from Srebrenica massacre
Pronk once criticised the Serbs and his own government over Srebrenica

Known online as "Vibbi," 25 year old Vibor Kalodjera blogged from Washington during the 2004 presidential campaign. He dismissed the Democratic candidate John Kerry as "no better" than George Bush, whom he in turn accused of being interested "in oil only".

His opinion of diplomatic life in general came through when he commented on his attendance at a conference. "What a privilege! I'd rather have been at a concert."

"Vibbi" was suspended.

One example of a current diplomat's blog I came across was one run by the Syrian ambassador in Washington Imad Moustapha.

His site is not exactly like Mr Pronk's. It has a picture of the ambassador sitting on a sofa and there is plenty of jolly talk about how wonderful Syria is as well as some interesting Syrian art and photos of the ambassador in Italy. Perhaps he has to resort to this method of communication because he has little contact with the State Department these days. Syria is currently still part of the "axis of evil".

Update: Mr Moustapha has himself sent this message: "I read with pleasure your comments on the Diplomats' Blogs.I have actually found in my blog a very powerful means of outreach and communication. And, yes, it helps a lot when you are considered the envoy of a 'rogue' and 'evil' nation. I usually get a moderate average of 7000 hits weekly. Only twice did my blog receive intense public attention, once when the New York Times wrote a profile about me (123000 hits within a couple of days), and the other time was when the Yediut Ahronot [an Israeli newspaper] used my blog as basis of a story about me (1100 hits within three days). The only point you missed about blogs is that we, diplomats, are after all humans who like to write, talk, and have fun. Writing a blog is real fun."

A quick inspection suggests that most embassy websites are woefully dull.

Embassy efforts

The British embassy site in Dublin, for example, where you might think that an informal approach would be appreciated, looks as if it has been downloaded from a 1950s pamphlet. There is no personal word from the ambassador, just a long CV and a passport-style photo.

Yet one might have thought that his travels around Ireland would produce an interesting commentary on the state of relations with Britain's important neighbour.

On the other hand, the Irish Embassy's website in London is not much better and has misspelt the word "contact".

The US embassy in London, whose ambassador Mr Holmes Tuttle is not, despite his status, one of the more visible diplomats in London, does not reveal much on its website about his activities. There are some pictures of the envoy in full white tie and tail, a garb somewhat distant from that of most Londoners.

The internet does seem to be a foreign thing to most diplomats.


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