Policy Analysis World Politics & Affairs

The Evolution of Consulate Diplomacy and International Law

Humans, by nature, have always felt the need to communicate. This started with the need to communicate with those in the local vicinity, which then progressed to those in neighbouring regions. And as humans came together and formed groups, societies grew over time and nation-states developed. As these nations became gradually more sophisticated, they needed a method of developing relations with other nations. The earliest diplomats were a response to a felt need for a mechanism to convey messages between societies safely and reliably. It is worth noting that diplomacy, even in its crudest forms, evolved in response to reciprocated political needs.

Previously, the main focus of diplomatic activity was to convey messages between nations, often spun out over long periods of time. Nowadays, the priority has shifted to the acquisition of knowledge about the political and military situation of others, with the information to be reported at maximum speed and with the utmost secrecy.

Therefore it comes as no surprise that these institutions, which are integral to the world order, have their own privileges. When receiving diplomats, who formally represent the sovereign, the receiving head of state grants certain privileges and immunities to ensure they may effectively carry out their duties, on the understanding that these are provided on a reciprocal basis. Diplomatic immunity protects the diplomat from prosecution if he has committed a crime in a foreign land. Currently, diplomatic relations, including diplomatic immunity, are governed internationally by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which has been ratified by almost every country in the world.

Vienna Convention on Consular Relations

Diplomatic immunity has long been in practice, even prior to the Vienna Convention. It stemmed from the desire of humans to communicate safely without being in constant fear, so as to increase cooperation between nations. The concept of diplomatic immunity can be found in ancient Indian epics like Ramayana (dating back somewhere between 3,000 and 2,000 BC) and Mahabharata (around the 4th century BC), in which messengers and diplomats were given immunity from capital punishment.

The Islamic prophet Muhammad sent and received envoys and strictly forbade harming them. This practice was continued by the Rashidun caliphs who exchanged diplomats with the Ethiopians and the Byzantines.

History has also been witness to the after-effects of a violation of diplomatic immunity. Many nations have paid dearly for violating diplomatic immunity. For example, these repercussions were best seen when Genghis Khan invaded Khwarezmia after Ala ad-Din Muhammad, the ruler of Khwarezmia killed the ambassadors sent by Genghis Khan. Ironically,  the Mongols’ original intent was not to invade the Khwarezmian Empire. In fact, Genghis Khan had initially sent Ala ad-Din Muhammad a message greeting him as his equal: “I am master of the lands of the rising sun while you rule those of the setting sun. Let us conclude a firm treaty of friendship and peace.”

However, the Shah was very suspicious of Genghis’ desire for a trade agreement. When Genghis Khan sent a 500-man caravan of Muslims to establish official trade ties with Khwarezmia, he had them all arrested. Genghis Khan then sent a second group of three ambassadors to meet the Shah himself and demand the caravan be set free. The Shah had two of the Mongols shaved and one beheaded before sending them back to Genghis Khan. Muhammad also ordered the execution of the caravan personnel. This was seen as a grave affront to the Khan himself, who considered ambassadors “as sacred and inviolable”, and ultimately led to Genghis Khan attacking Khwarezmia.

The Mongol conquest of Khwarezmia from 1219 to 1221 marked the beginning of the Mongol conquest of the Islamic states. The Mongol expansion would ultimately culminate in the conquest of virtually all of Asia (as well as parts of Eastern Europe) including the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, Siberia, and most of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Legacy of the Mongol Empire

A more modern instance of diplomatic immunity is seen in the estimated $1.9 million in traffic fines owed by Egyptian diplomats to New York City as of 2007. Their diplomatic immunity protects them from being charged with traffic fines. This demonstrates how much countries value their diplomats.

However, there have been many cases in which diplomats have subverted their diplomatic immunity to their own benefit in order to escape prosecution from charges as horrendous as murder. This is morally incorrect — but it is a price host nations have agreed to pay for a larger societal gain. The alternative is to make envoys vulnerable to wrongful pressure and coercion, which would make diplomacy impossible.

Another important aspect of consulates is the privilege of inviolability given to them by host nations as outlined in the 1961 Vienna Convention. This is not to mean that the consulate is afforded “sovereignty”; the laws of the host nation continue to apply to the consulate. This principle only enables the consulate to regulate who can enter it and provides it with increased freedom in a foreign, often rival, nation.

This was amply witnessed in the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post journalist, in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey. Just three days after the murder, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was quick to dispel rumors he had been murdered. “We have nothing to hide,” said the de-facto Saudi leader, “The premises are sovereign territory, but we will allow [Turkish authorities] to enter.”

http:// to Dapo Akande, a professor of public international law at the University of Oxford, this statement is incorrect. Akande stated: “As a matter of international law that’s absolutely clear, the consulate is not within the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia.” Whatever happened to Khashoggi, he says, “is an event that happened within Turkish territory to which Turkish law applies.”

However, the host state cannot simply enter a consulate without the consent of the sending state. It is for this reason that Turkish authorities had to wait for Saudi Arabia’s permission to enter. (In the end, they were allowed, ten days after Mohammed bin Salman’s guarantee).

Another example of misuse of the concept of inviolability was when President Reagan tried to justify U.S. shelling in Lebanon as a reaction to attacks on US embassy: ”It was because of shelling our embassy. Now that’s United States territory.” Under international law, an embassy is not a ”territory” of the sending state; it is the territory of the receiving state that is accorded, through various treaties and customs, some immunity from the host country’s law.

An example of consulate inviolability pertains to Julian Assange, the founder and editor of WikiLeaks, who has been arrested by the British police from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Assange took refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case that has since been dropped and has remained there ever since. The British authorities were unable to arrest him since he was staying in an embassy and they could not enter it without Ecuador’s explicit permission.

On April 11, Scotland Yard said it was invited into the embassy by the ambassador, following the Ecuadorian government’s withdrawal of asylum due to a long-running dispute between the Ecuadorian authorities and Assange.

There has been an international outcry over his arrest with Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa said the revocation of Julian Assange’s asylum is “incredible”. Correa also stated: “They are lies. They’re a justification for trying to justify this betrayal. It’s the biggest betrayal perhaps in Latin American history”.

Former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden stated in support of the Wikileaks founder that “Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.” He also said, “The United Nations formally ruled his detention to be arbitrary, a violation of human rights. They have repeatedly issued statements calling for him to walk free —including very recently.”

Julian Assange after arrest

Assange now faces extradition to US for “one of the the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”, according to the Justice Department of US. He has been charged with helping former Army intelligence specialist Chelsea Manning access Defense Department computers in 2010 in an effort to disclose secret government documents.

With pressure building up to release Assange in the UK, the US almost seems to have its own metaphorical Khashoggi moment. The US wants to extradite Assange and lay charges against him ranging from the disclosure of sensitive US government documents related to the Iraq and Afghan wars to Wikileaks publishing mails the government claimed to have been hacked by Russia during the 2016 elections. Now it is up to the UK courts to decide whether they want to go forward with extradition or to prosecute him locally.

All of the incidents above illustrate the importance attached to consulates in the world of politics. As the world is evolving, the role of consulates has grown and it has become increasingly important to respect these foreign institutions, as they delicately balance the world of international relations.

By Khush

I am a high schooler studying in the UAE. I have a deep interest in International Relations and strive every day to learn more about this intricate but beautiful world of international relations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.