In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four American diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, were murdered, and as protests by factions of various publics against a privately made film continue to threaten the staffs of western embassies and consulates in numerous countries from Tunisia to Australia, it is important not to lose sight of the effects of these attacks and protests upon diplomacy itself. Responsibility to protect diplomatic personnel lies, and must lie, first and foremost with the government of the host country in which diplomats reside. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which codified over three centuries of international norms of diplomatic practice, is unambiguous on this point. Article 22, Section 2 articulates the obligation of the host government: ‘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.’ Article 29 links this obligation specifically to the protection of diplomatic personnel: ‘The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.’
Diplomacy is the activity that makes international relations possible. Diplomacy mediates estrangement betweens peoples and societies who are different, often in very fundamental ways. In order for such mediation to take place, governments of states must be able to represent themselves and their peoples to other governments and peoples. Governments must be able to communicate with each other on an ongoing basis if war is to be avoided, if trade is to be promoted, if cultures are to be shared, if monetary crises are to be averted. Representation and communication are thus the core functions of diplomacy. In the Internet age, a measure of communication can be conducted electronically. Yet it does not substitute for diplomatic representation in person: the ‘being there’ that permits people to get to know one another, to speak and to listen, to understand each other’s characteristics and cultures firsthand.
One of the fundamental attributes of sovereignty is the ability of a state’s government to maintain a monopoly on the use of force within its own territory. This includes the responsibility to protect a state’s own people from the depredations of armed mobs and organized terrorist cells. That responsibility also extends to the protection of the diplomats of states with whom the state has entered into diplomatic relations. By deciding to open full diplomatic relations with another state, including sending a mission of diplomatic personnel, a government is making a judgement about the sovereignty of the other state. Libya’s people have only recently won a hard-fought revolution against the oppressive former government of Colonel Khadafy. Hence Libya’s new government might not yet fairly be expected to have sufficient control over the use of force on its own territory to ensure the safety of the current level of foreign diplomatic personnel at embassies and consulates in Libya. On the other hand, U.S. President Obama should not have had to press Egyptian President Morsi, for several days, whilst Morsi kept one eye on domestic political interests, before Morsi brought Egypt’s forces fully to bear on protecting U.S. facilities in Cairo. No government should deploy diplomatic personnel to another state without the reasonable assurance of their security in post. But when diplomats are unable to represent their governments in person abroad, something very important is lost. The ability of two states to communicate becomes sharply curtailed, as the history of relations between states without direct, in-person representation attests.
In the global village that the Internet has facilitated, much less is private than ever before. People today have the capacity to know much more about the very different lives and views of others, often more than perhaps they would like to do. In this globalized world, nobody is obliged to like the values and preferences of those who are different from them. Yet surely wars, crusades, pogroms and ethnic cleansing are a less palatable alternative. If we are to live together at all in a world where differences exist and must sometimes be mediated, we all must join in defending the essential prerequisites of diplomacy. We must guarantee the protection of diplomats who every day do the hard work that makes it possible for very different cultures to exist beside and amongst each other in an ever smaller global society.
Prof Geoff Pigman is a research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.