What being a diplomat in a foreign country is all about

Imagine you were in a foreign country and you lost your passport, or your money, or there was some problem you couldn't handle yourself. One solution would be to notify the police. But the people who could probably best understand your problem, especially if there were language difficulties, would be the people from your own embassy.

An embassy is the office or building that houses a country's official representatives in a foreign land.

The officials who work inside embassies are called diplomats.

Diplomats do more than just issue passports or visas or help fellow countrymen in a tight spot.

They are highly skilled people, many of them fluent in several languages, who guard the interests of their own countries in other nations.

A skillful diplomat can do much to improve the image of his country by expanding trade links or strengthening cultural ties in an exchange of artists, teachers, or scientists with the host country.

A diplomat may even intervene to stop a riot or work out some special strategy through intensive peace talks, known as negotiations, that could make the difference between war and peace between his country and the host nation.

It has long been accepted that diplomats who undertake such important and sensitive tasks for their countries must be protected so they can feel safe in their duties.

There are rules specially drawn up and accepted by more than 100 countries of the world that inform countries how they must treat diplomats. These rules are part of the agreement known as the Vienna Convention of 1961.

The Vienna Convention makes sure that embassies are off limits even to the host government unless that government receives permission from the head of the diplomatic mission. That is usually an ambassador.

Supposing then that you were in a foreign country and you were being persecuted and perhaps even being chased by the secret police of that country. If you ran through the gates of a foreign embassy to seek safety, provided that embassy was willing to accept you, the police would not be able to take you. They wouldn't even be able to enter the embassy to look for you.

When diplomats and their families arrive in a new country, their baggage escapes customs searches, provided the customs authorities believe the contents are either for official use or for personal use. Diplomats in a foreign land also do not have to pay taxes, and they cannot be detained or arrested.

When they are accused of some offense that might otherwise have led to a fine or imprisonment, they cannot be touched legally. This exemption is known as diplomatic immunity, which means the diplomat in question is immune or completely safe from any kind of investigation.

Much of the basis for this protection was to make sure that countries did not find easy excuses to pin made-up charges on innocent diplomats.

At the same time there are hundreds of cases where diplomats have been guilty of wrongdoing and have taken advantage of this diplomatic immunity to get away with serious crimes.

This is why countries like Britain, which has been the victim of serious offenses by diplomats who are safe from the law, want to make changes to the Vienna Convention. The idea is that diplomats, like the rest of us, have the responsibility to be law-abiding, and if they are not they must suffer some of the consequences.

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