LONDON — Boris Becker was never known for being particularly diplomatic on the tennis court, and the three-time Wimbledon champion’s frequent outbursts are still legendary.
So it probably raised a few eyebrows when Becker announced that he was pursuing a second career in diplomacy. In April, the German sports star said that he had been named the Central African Republic’s “Attaché for Sports/Humanitarian/Cultural Affairs in the European Union.”
The announcement came while Becker was being sued over money he allegedly owes to private bank Arbuthnot Latham after his bankruptcy last year. And, coincidence or not, Becker’s lawyers argue that his diplomatic role grants him “diplomatic immunity under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”
“This means he cannot be subject to legal process in the courts of any country for so long as he remains a recognized diplomatic agent,” his legal team wrote in a letter. “He may not be made subject to any legal process, whatever the merits, without the express consent of the Central African Republic; and legal claims can only be served on him through diplomatic channels,” the statement continues.
His lawyers have also presented those claims to Britain’s High Court, arguing that both British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and his CAR counterpart would have to decide whether any lawsuits should proceed — turning the private bankruptcy of a former sports champion into a politically delicate matter. If Becker were to be prosecuted, other states could potentially use the case to target diplomats abroad who are protected by the same immunity.
Becker’s defense strategy has triggered questions about his motivations and timing in accepting a diplomatic role with the CAR — a country in the midst of a bloody civil conflict and humanitarian crisis that may not be (or perhaps should not be) overly focused on its cultural and sports ties to Europe.
In a statement posted online, Becker appeared to preempt possible allegations that he may have accepted his diplomatic role for the CAR to gain diplomatic immunity from the lawsuit. “I am immensely proud of my appointment at the Sports and Culture Attaché for the Central African Republic. Sports is incredibly important in Africa and is fast becoming a universal language, a form of social diplomacy and a leveller between people from vastly different and unequal social backgrounds around the world,” Becker wrote.
‘There is no reason why a role of this kind should be treated any differently to an appointment as a military or a trade Attaché,” he continued. The former tennis champion also condemned the decision to commence bankruptcy proceedings against him as “unjustified and unjust” and announced that he would seek compensation for the “completely unnecessary declaration of bankruptcy” that he was forced into.
The trustees overseeing Becker’s bankruptcy case denied the accusations Friday. “We welcome Mr Becker’s appointment to promote sport in the Central African Republic. However, we believe that it has no material impact on Mr Becker’s bankruptcy,” Mark Ford, the lead joint trustee, was quoted as saying.
Article 29 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which specifies that “the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable,” has long been controversial. In 2014, for instance, Saudi businessman Sheikh Walid Juffali was named permanent representative by the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia after his former wife Christina Estrada made separation claims.
Britain’s High Court ruled in 2016 that his diplomatic status was “entirely artificial,” drawing rare governmental condemnations. Britain’s Foreign Office criticized the ruling at the time, saying it could lead to British diplomats’ statuses abroad being “unjustifiably curtailed,” and an appeals court dismissed the High Court’s assessment.
But as a permanent resident of Britain, the court of appeal ruled, Juffali was still not protected by his diplomatic immunity. Estrada was subsequently awarded about $100 million.
If the same logic were to be applied in Becker’s case, the longtime British resident might discover that he isn’t protected by his work with the CAR, after all.