Trade and Globalisation

The Security of Nationals Abroad and The ‘Duty of Care’
16 Jun 2016 09:00
Source: United Nations Development Programme /

Sweeping civil unrest and terrorism in the Middle East, crippling natural disasters, and the spectre of disease have sharpened the minds of citizens wary of foreign threats. As citizen awareness has increased, policymakers too have woken up to the importance of this growing field. Governments are under increasing pressure to better protect their citizens, be they independent travellers, stationary expats or employees in high-risk areas. Vulnerabilities exist for all groups.

The Clingendael Institute welcomed scholars from five countries to the ’Duty of Care: Protecting Citizens Abroad’ conference. Co-hosted by Clingendael’s Jan Melissen and Nina Græger of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), the meeting explored the various tenets of how governments and businesses approach the wellbeing of their nationals overseas. In this short account it is impossible to do justice to the variety of perspectives. Broadly speaking, conference discussions articulated signs of a gradual reconfiguration of the relationship between governments and the public, and concrete instances of renegotiation of government-citizen relations.

Workers Abroad
‘Tough cases make bad law.’ This age-old legal truism nonetheless indicates that tough cases do indeed exist and must be contended with. For the duty of care, these tough cases for diplomacy are manifested by large-scale crisis incidents, such as the In Amenas terrorist attack in Algeria, the Fukushima meltdown in Japan and the devastating Nepal Earthquake.

Governments have long acted to ensure the safety of nationals overseas. However, the picture is distorted somewhat by the rise of the ‘worker-citizen’. Companies operating internationally assign employees to placements beyond their home borders, a development that creates a grey zone for the duty of care. Companies owe their employees care, as do the worker’s home governments. Yet collaboration and information sharing between multinational corporations and governments is fraught with concerns over information disclosure and jurisdictional concerns about local sovereignty. The setting is even more ambiguous in high-risk areas, where remoteness and instability demand cooperation but the deliverability of care is beset with obstacles. Both sectors urge thorough risk assessments, but the distinction of the public and private sector as separate spheres limits the effectiveness of preventative strategies, although the two frequently come together as incidents unfold. How companies and governments liaise at the nexus of these issues is critical for the continued care of the worker-citizen.

Care for Whom
If the case of the worker-citizen concerns responsibility of whom, then the accompanying aspect must therefore be responsibility for whom. Nationals abroad are not solely workers and tourists, nor is care only required in headline-grabbing crises. Family members, dual-citizenship and permanent residence holders, out-sourced contractors from third countries – all may find themselves in need of assistance, be it medical, legal, or administrative. Where conflicts occur, such as in child citizens of one country and custody disputes with parents of another, what framework would allow states to fulfil their duty of care obligations without compromising diplomatic norms? Is the definition of state fit for purpose in these cases? The political intricacies are infinite, let alone the economic ramifications. In extreme cases, countries may find themselves obliged to provide care to family members of citizens hostile to that very state, as in the case of foreign fighters in Islamic State and al-Shabaab. 

The carers themselves also demand attention. For without the relatively ‘safe’ zone of the foreign ministry, the capacity for providing care is severely hindered. That states have a duty of care may be at the core of the field, yet to take their ability to deliver care for grated is erroneous. Even those seeking to illuminate this fascinating dynamic are unable to do so from a distance. In exploring the field, academics expose themselves to the same risks as all nationals overseas. Research, in this case, is not distinct from the subject matter. Academia has much the same obligations for care of staff as, for instance, multinational oil companies. The level of governmentality required by practitioners of this topic bridges these formerly distant organisations.

The ‘Duty of Care’ in the Digital Age
Citizen expectations drive technological change in this sector. The new world of high volume travel to distant locales places demands on diplomacy that require it to reach beyond the traditional methods of diplomatic practice. Surging digital literacy amongst the general population has left governments struggling to catch up, with ministries handicapped by ingrained and stagnant procedures. However the rewards of engaging with the digital realm, and especially social media, dictate that MFAs increasingly turn to digital to improve service delivery. Digital technology is now an essential tool for better governance. For the duty of care, social media have become the default method of data gathering and communication with citizens in large crisis incidents, utilised for verifying citizen wellbeing and aiding response efforts. Social media have increased citizen expectations of government provision of care. Interestingly, though, the evidence is also pointing in the opposite direction - with people casting themselves as empowered contributors rather than mere victims or spectators when it comes to assistance in overseas crises.

The project was funded by the Research Council Norway as part of a wider collaboration effort between the Clingendael Institute and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

Jan Melissen @JanMDiplo has shared conference ideas via Twitter. Among future conference outputs are a special issue of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy and a book.