300 years of diplomatic immunity

By , Robert Wesson is senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The taking of hostages, using humane feelings for blackmail, has unhappily become endemic in some parts of the world; but it is barbarity without precedent in modern history for a government to do this. It is even graver that a sovereign state maltreats diplomatic personnel like a terroristic gang. The inviolability of ambassadors is the oldest principles of international law and for centuries the best observed.

The ancient Greeks usually respected the immunity of envoys, and this was fixed in Roman law. The Middle Ages were less punctilious, but as modern nations grew up it became conventional to treat ambassadors as representatives of sovereigns, with due dignity regardless of feelings toward them.

For example, in 1562 the British ambassador to France was allowed to leave freely despite conniving with the king's enemies. In 1584 the British found the Spanish ambassador involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth and replace her by Mary Queen of Scots. After consultation with a learned commission the government did not punish but simply expelled him.

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In 1625, Hugo Grotius, so-called father of international law, wrote of "two points with regard to ambassadors which are everywhere admitted as prescribed by the law of nations, first that they be admitted, and then that they be not violated."

Since the beginning of the 17th century there has been debate on the extent of the immunity of diplomats and their quarters, not on the principle itself. For example, in 1660 the French envoy to the papacy claimed immunity from arrest not only for his own suite but for persons residing in his vicinity. From time to time, the granting of asylum in embassies to outlaws has been questioned, and as late as the 18th century the Sultan of Turkey sometimes manhandled Christian envoys. But it has been recognized over 300 years by all civilized states that the sanctity of diplomatic personnel is essential for the conduct of international relations.

It has been universally agreed, as was codified by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, that accredited diplomats, their families and aides, cannot be taxed by or held responsible to the laws of the host country -- to the annoyance of the police of Washington and New York who cannot even fine parking violators with diplomatic plates.

According to a convention most used in Latin America, political enemies of the government who can make it to a foreign embassy are safe, and they have usually been granted a safe-conduct to leave the country. A diplomat cannot by definition be a spy, because his legitimate purpose is to gather information. If the host government does not like his conduct it can force his withdrawal by declaring him non grata or break off diplomatic relations.

Diplomatic immunity has been fully respected through countless conflicts, including two bitter world wars. In August, 1914, a Berlin mob attacked the British Embassy; the German Government suppressed the rioters and expressed deep regrets to the country with which it was at war. In World War II, the representatives of Hitler and those of the makers of Pearl Harbor were treated with full propriety, as were American representatives in the respective countries.

It was a grave breach of international law when the Chinese Communists, with whom the US had no diplomatic relations, in October, 1949, imprisoned Consul General Angus Ward in Mukden. The revolutionaries released him after a strong US protest, but the incident did much to set Sino-American relations on a course of conflict for over 20 years.

A government that grossly and barbarously violates the norms of civilized international behavior is not entitled to the rights of a sovereign state and the advantages of membership in the world community. A nation that scorns international law deserves to be treated as an international outlaw.

Unhappily, the world does not stand up in unanimous horror to denounce and chastise the transgression, partly because of the growing atmosphere of lawlessness in most of the world, partly because oil riches condone crime. But if there is no punishment for this attack on international decency, the tenor of international relations will doubtless be profoundly affected -- to the detriment mostly of the third world.

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