Global Ethics Corner: Is the Special Status of Diplomatic Missions a Thing of the Past?

Oct 9, 2012

Under rules codified at the 1961 Vienna Convention, diplomatic missions are generally considered inviolable. But with the murder of Libya Ambassador Chris Stevens in mind, is this special status changing? How can the Vienna Convention be upheld?

On September 11, 2012 , two U.S. diplomatic missions were attacked. In Cairo, Egypt, protestors stormed the U.S. embassy. In Benghazi, Libya, American ambassador Chris Stevens was killed, along with three diplomatic and security personnel.

These attacks—especially the murder of Ambassador Stevens—were shocking in part because each happened on the premises of a diplomatic mission. Under international law, embassies and consular buildings are generally considered inviolable.

In 1961, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified centuries of tradition by forbidding host countries to enter a diplomatic mission without permission.

Embassies are where refugees and dissidents flee for sanctuary. They are thought of as safe havens.

In April, blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng captured world attention when he escaped house arrest and was taken in by the American embassy in Beijing. WikiLeaks head Julian Assange has been living at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since August in order to avoid extradition to Sweden.

In these cases and similar ones, media attention and international pressure has reinforced the traditional sanctity of diplomatic territory. No country wants to break precedent with the Vienna Convention. Doing so could put their own diplomatic personnel and property at risk.

But how much of a deterrent is international law in the face of an angry mob or a terrorist attack?

In 1979, Iranian revolutionaries held 52 American hostages for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took hundreds of hostages at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru in 1996.

What good did the Vienna Convention do in those cases? What good did it do for Ambassador Stevens ? What do you think?

Going forward, how can the Vienna Convention be upheld? Or is the special status granted to embassies and diplomats a relic of an earlier time?

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:
Voice of America
U.S. Department of State [also for picture 6]
Tinou Bao
United Nations Photo [also for picture 15]
Al Jazeera English
acidpolly
Michael Mayer
Beatrice Murch
Dan Nguyen
Gigi Ibrahim
Adam Jones
Huhsunqu
Secretary of Defense

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