The Embassy and International Law
July 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
Utilised in numerous Hollywood blockbusters in recent years, from Robert Langdon’s dash to the U.S embassy in Paris in ‘The Da-Vinci Code’ to Jason Bourne’s run in with the consulate officials in ‘The Bourne Identity’, the position of the embassy in international law could be mistaken for the setting of the latest cinematic release rather than a fundamental instrument in diplomatic relations. Events in the past two months however have illustrated that the inviolability of the embassy is much more than a plot device in the latest Bond film, and instead is one of the oldest and most sacrosanct principles of international law.
In late April 2012 Cheng Guancheng, a Chinese dissident activist, escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S embassy in Beijing. Arriving days before a planned visit from U.S Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, his residence in the U.S embassy sparked a brief diplomatic crisis between the United States and China. This crisis was seemingly reconciled in May 2012 when Mr Guancheng flew with his family to the United States to take up a position at a U.S university.
In developments much closer to home, wikileaks founder Julian Assange appears to be avoiding his imminent extradition to Sweden by residing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Mr Assange faces accusations of sexual assault in the Scandinavian country but has sought the sympathy of Ecuadorian officials to prevent the extradition which could see him further transferred to the United States. Mr Assange’s primary fear is that if extradited to the United States he could face the death penalty in relation to charges concerning his dissemination of confidential information.
Drawing on examples from these two recent cases, this post intends to set out the position of the embassy in international law and provide a brief uncritical explanation of why individuals wanted by a forum State have sought protection in the diplomatic premises of other nations.
The emergence of the embassy in international law
The relevant law which has led to the UK Foreign Office informing the Metropolitan Police that Mr Assange is out of their reach so long as he resides in the Ecuadorian embassy is found in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR). As highlighted by the preamble to this international treaty, the provisions contained within the Convention were not new in 1961 when the treaty was formally created, but are a codification of principles which have been followed for hundreds of years in relation to the diplomatic official:
‘Recalling that peoples of all nations from ancient times have recognized the status of diplomatic Agents’
Writing in 1924 Korf highlighted that even in ancient civilizations the position of the diplomatic official was given a protected status:
‘[i]t was recognized everywhere that the envoy had a specially privileged position; his person was inviolable and sacred, his status abroad was protected by the principle of extraterritoriality; he was exempt from municipal and local laws and taxation’
By providing an individual with a special protected status tribes, kingdoms and other large groupings could negotiate differences and conduct trade without the fear that their envoy or messenger would be the victim of attack or imprisonment. The system was mutually beneficially between different parties as if an envoy of one kingdom was endangered or imprisoned while conducting his role in a receiving kingdom, his contemporary in his own kingdom would be at risk of direct retaliation. In effect, according to Dixon, the diplomat was seen as a representative or alter ego of the sovereign and was thus entitled to all of the immunities which he or she would have enjoyed.
Eileen Denza has stated that even before the congress of Westphalia in 1648, where international law is commonly seen to have emerged into its modern Sovereign State form, permanent legations were accepted as the normal way of conducting international business between different kingdoms or tribes. This is evident in that France’s permanent representation abroad began as early as 1522 when King Francis I sent a delegation to the Swiss.
Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
In the period immediately following WW2, when international law was arguably at its most fertile and the concurrent demise of colonialism saw the creation of numerous new nations, the decision was made to codify the customary provisions which had previously regulated the law on embassies. Listed in the preamble to the treaty the purpose of the VCDR was for the ‘the maintenance of international peace and security, and the promotion of friendly relations among nations,’ and ‘to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions as representing States’.
Denza notes that, even despite the diplomatic problems caused by the Cold War, the treaty was relatively straightforward to negotiate. This was partly because the States who negotiated the treaty had generally followed the rules they were negotiating for hundreds of years until the point of codification, and also because States had a common interest in the successful creation of the treaty. Just as with the tribes and kingdoms of centuries before, States may have had enormous gripes and ideological differences with one another, however as the sanctity of diplomatic channels benefitted all parties, they could agree on the sovereign immunity of their diplomats abroad and safety of their embassies.
Entering into force in April 1964, the treaty currently has 60 signatories and 187 parties making it one of the most universally accepted provisions in international law. Dixon highlights that in the US Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran Case the Court has indicated that a great part of the VCDR now also makes up customary international law as well as international treaty law.
The inviolability of the embassy
The reason why Mr Guancheng fled to the U.S embassy in Beijing, and why Mr Assange is currently residing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, is because it is not only the position of the diplomat but of the embassy premises which are out of reach of the authorities of the forum government. The inviolability of the diplomatic premises are a natural extension of the protection provided to diplomats. In theory it enables diplomatic staff the freedom to carry out their duties and functions conscious that they will not be harassed or intimidated by officials of the receiving State.
Their sanctity is provided for by Article 22 of the VCDR which states that:
1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2. 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.
3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.
It is the blanket inviolability of the embassy, visible here in section 1, which creates this loophole in international law. Intended seemingly to protect ambassadors, staff and their sensitive materials it is this provision which has the capacity to protect individuals within embassy premises also. Signed by both Ecuador and the United Kingdom in 1961, this safeguard is what is currently preventing the Metropolitan Police from gaining entry to the Ecuadorian embassy and arresting Mr Assange for breaching his bail conditions.
Although there is a certain irony in Mr Assange availing himself of embassy protection when his organisation undoubtedly caused diplomatic headaches for embassies all over the world, he will be safe within the Ecuadorian Embassy for as long as the mission is willing to accommodate him. Although it is likely that his visit to the embassy will be over in a matter of days, as Ecuadorian officials consider what approach to take on his case, it is not unheard of for individuals to spend long periods of time living in another State’s embassy. For instance, the Hungarian Priest Jozsef Mindszenty spent 15 years of voluntary confinement in the U.S Embassy in Budapest.
Thus, it is the right afforded to the Ecuadorian State under international law which is currently protecting Mr Assange. My next blog post will consider the responsibility of the Embassy State (the ‘sending State’) when an individual claims refuge there from human rights abuses.
– C. Mallory