People who are the full-time representatives of their home countries in foreign countries fulfill important responsibilities. They represent the policies and interests of their own governments and peoples to the governments and peoples of the foreign countries. They gather information about the policies and interests of the foreign governments and peoples and report that information to the diplomats’ own governments. They also make recommendations on policies to their own governments. They do all of this on foreign soil without the protections of their own governments.
International Law Regarding Protection of Foreign Diplomats and Missions
All states need such diplomatic presences in other countries and hence have a common interest in having their diplomats and diplomatic premises protected by the foreign governments. Indeed, as preamble to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations state, having a treaty setting forth such protections “contribute[s] to the development of friendly relations among nations, irrespective of their differing constitutional and social systems” and hence to “the maintenance of international peace and security” under the U.N. Charter.
These common interests have existed for a long time and were the motivation for the well established international practice and custom of providing special protection and immunity from criminal jurisdiction for ambassadors. By the time of the Congress of Westphalia in 1648, permanent legations were accepted as the normal way of conducting international business among sovereign States, and over the next century detailed rules emerged in relation to the immunity of ambassadors and their accompanying families and staff from civil as well as criminal proceedings, the inviolability of their embassy premises and their exemption from customs duties and from taxes. These rules of customary international law were described in detail by early writers such as Grotius (1625), Bynkershoek (1721) and Vattel (1758).
The first international treaty or other instrument codifying any aspect of diplomatic law was the Regulation adopted by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Codification among States of immunities and privileges of diplomatic agents did not begin until the Havana Convention of 1928 drawn up among the States of the Pan-American Union and the Draft Convention drawn up in 1932 by the Harvard Research in International Law.
After the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, efforts to develop a comprehensive multilateral treaty on diplomatic relations began. The initial draft of such a treaty was produced in 1957, and its 1958 revision was the basis for the U.N. Conference on Diplomatic Intercourse and Immunities in Vienna, Austria in March and April of 1961. On April 18, 1961, this Conference concluded with the signing of the Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which entered into force on April 24, 1964, after 22 states had ratified the treaty.
Now 187 of the 193 members of the U.N. are parties to this treaty. Its success may be ascribed first to the fact that the central rules regulating diplomatic relations had been stable for over 200 years. An embassy’s basic functions of representing the sending State and protecting its interests and those of its nationals, negotiation with the receiving State, observing and reporting on conditions and developments there remained and still remain unaltered. In addition, because the establishment of diplomatic relations and of permanent missions takes place by mutual consent, every State is both a sending and receiving State. Its own representatives abroad are in a sense hostages who may on a basis of reciprocity suffer if it violates the rules of diplomatic immunity, or may be penalized even for minor restrictions regarding privileges or protocol.
Article 22(2) of the Vienna Convention states, “The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.” In addition, Article 29 provides, “The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.”
Recent Breaches of International Law Regarding Protection of Diplomats and Diplomatic Missions
The recent horrific attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the world, especially the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the murder of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher (“Chris”) Stevens and three other U.S. citizens, are stark examples of the dangers facing all diplomats throughout history.
These attacks also represent breaches by many states of their important international legal obligation “to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission” and “to prevent any attack on ["the head of the mission or a member of the diplomatic staff of the mission"'s ] . . . person, freedom or dignity.”
Ecuador’s Specious Allegation of the U.K.’s Breach of These Legal Obligations
These deplorable breaches also, in my opinion, show the utter speciousness of Ecuador’s complaint about the alleged failure of the United Kingdom to honor its important obligation with respect to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after Ecuador had granted temporary lodgings, and subsequent diplomatic asylum, to Julian Assange.
Dispassionate analysis of the U.K.’s alleged written threat to invade the Embassy shows this not to be the case, as discussed in a prior post.
In addition, there were British police outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, but they were there to protect the Embassy and to arrest Assange if he tried to leave the Embassy. After all Assange had violated the terms of his bail by a British court by leaving a specific place west of London and surreptitiously entering the Embassy in order to avoid being arrested pursuant to a European Arrest Warrant to be sent to Sweden for investigations for his alleged criminal sexual conduct. In short, Assange was a fugitive from justice. Moreover, British police or other authorities never came close to entering the Ecuadorian Embassy. And no Ecuadorian diplomatic personnel were injured or even threatened.
By the way, negotiations between Ecuador and the U.K. to resolve their disputes over Assange apparently are deadlocked.