Diplomatic Incident
On Sept. 12 2012, riots in Libya and Egypt which broke out in protest over a film produced by an Israeli-born real estate developer, left ten Libyans and four Americans – including the serving US Ambassador to Libya – dead.

A well-respected diplomat who had only recently returned to Benghazi, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed by an angry mob that was blasting rocket-propelled grenades at the US Consulate in that Libyan city.

The mob’s ire had been raised by the furore associated with Innocence of Islam, written and directed by Sam Bacile – a loose “biography” of the Prophet Muhammed, which paints him in a less than flattering light.

The film received a sparsely attended screening in California in July. It was made with 60 actors (many of them first-timers or non-professionals) and 45 crew members last year.

US sources now maintain that the weapon attack on the Consulate was planned by hostile elements who used the protest outside the building as a diversion. The sources could not say whether the attackers instigated the protest or merely took advantage of it. They say they do not believe that Stevens was specifically targeted.

However, terror analysts in London have also speculated that Stevens was the victim of a targeted al Qaeda revenge attack. In their view, the assault was intended to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s second in command killed a few months ago. It also came close on the heels of the 11th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11th, on the US mainland.

It is understood that Ambassador Stevens entered the consular building after the protests had begun to turn violent, in an attempt to evacuate staff members inside the complex.

Stevens, some ten Libyan nationals, and three other Americans suffocated trying to escape a fire after a grenade was thrown into the building, according to a senior US official.

Whatever the underlying causes, a horrifying and tragic event.

A real setback, for the recently elected government of the newly “liberated” Libya.

And a major diplomatic incident.

It’s not the first. And sadly, it may not be the last.

Throughout history, envoys – as the visible representatives of sovereign states – have been seen as emblems of those states, and treated accordingly, in times of hostility.

As diplomats by definition enter a country under safe-conduct, violating their persons is normally viewed as a great breach of honor. Nonetheless, there have been a number of cases where diplomats have been killed.

The arrest and ill-treatment of the envoy of Raja Raja Chola by the king of Kulasekhara dynasty (Second Cheras), which is now part of modern India, led to a naval war called Kandalur War in AD 994.

Genghis Khan and the Mongols were well known for strongly insisting on the rights of diplomats, and they would often take terrifying vengeance against any state that violated these rights.

The Mongols would often raze entire cities to the ground in retaliation for the execution of their ambassadors, and invaded and destroyed the Khwarezmid Empire after their ambassadors had been mistreated.

In 1538, King Francis I of France threatened Edmund Bonner – Henry VIII’s Ambassador to the French court, and later Bishop – with a hundred strokes of the halberd as punishment for Bonner’s “insolent behavior”. Though the punishment was not actually carried out, the incident clearly indicates that European monarchs of the time did not consider foreign ambassadors to be completely immune from punishment.

In the 17th century, European diplomats realized that protection from prosecution (and persecution) was essential to doing their jobs, and a set of rules evolved guaranteeing the rights of diplomats. These were still confined to Western Europe and were closely tied to the prerogatives of nobility.

The British Parliament first guaranteed diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors in 1709, after Count Andrey Matveyev, a Russian resident in London, had been subjected to verbal and physical abuse by British bailiffs.

For the upper class of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, diplomatic immunity was an easy concept to understand. The first “embassies” were not permanent establishments but actual visits by high-ranking representatives – often close relatives of the sovereign, or even the sovereign in person.

Even as various permanent representations evolved, these were usually on a treaty basis between two powers. They were frequently staffed by relatives of the sovereign or high-ranking nobles.

Warfare was not between individuals, but between their sovereigns. And the officers and officials of European governments and armies often changed employers. Truces and ceasefires were commonplace, along with fraternization between officers of enemy armies, during them.

For instance, even during the French revolutionary wars, British scientists still visited the French Academy.

In the 19th century, the Congress of Vienna reasserted the rights of diplomats; and they have been largely respected since then, as the European model has spread throughout the world.

Even in World War II, diplomatic immunity was upheld, and the embassies of the belligerents (Germany, Italy, Japan) evacuated through neutral countries.

Today, diplomatic relations, including diplomatic immunity, are governed internationally by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. A more limited set of privileges and immunities are set out for consular personnel, in the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Nearly all States are party to both of these treaties.

In modern times, diplomatic immunity continues to provide a means, albeit imperfect, to safeguard diplomatic personnel from any animosity that might arise between nations.

Key aspects of diplomatic privileges and immunities include:

*The concept of reciprocity; that is the same rules apply to (say) New Zealand representatives working in New Zealand’s overseas posts as to foreign diplomats posted in New Zealand.

*Officials of the host government cannot enter embassy premises or the residences of diplomatic personnel.

*Communications between an embassy and its home government cannot be interfered with.

*Diplomatic personnel may not be arrested or detained or prosecuted for breach of local laws, and cannot be required to appear in court as witnesses.

*Diplomatic personnel are exempt from certain local taxes, such as income tax.

Although diplomats are generally immune from the criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction of the host country’s courts, they are still under a duty to respect the host country’s laws and remain subject to their home country’s jurisdiction.

A diplomat’s home government can decide to waive immunity where a diplomat has committed an offence, or may decide to take its own actions against the offender.

In addition, the Vienna Convention provides for specific measures that can be taken by both the home and host governments in cases where diplomatic privileges and immunity have been misused or abused.

While it is clear from the events in Libya that the physical persons of envoys serving in countries are not immune from harm (however well protected), there are protocols in place to ensure the sanctity of consular premises, and that embassy staff may go about their legitimate business as sovereign representatives of their respective states.

And there are misconceptions about these. Some of which I’d like to clear up, next time.

Until then, I’ll leave you with two anecdotes, representing opposing sides of the same coin.

In 1979, in Sri Lanka, the Burmese Ambassador to Sri Lanka shot his wife as she got out of the car after returning from a date with a player in a night-club band. The next morning, his neighbors were surprised to see the Ambassador building a pyre on the back lawn.

When the police were called, the Ambassador opened the metal front gates just enough to say that there was no trouble, and to remind them that his house enjoyed diplomatic inviolability and could not be entered by Sri Lankan police. Then, he went back to work. The houses around his long back garden were now alive with fascinated spectators as he emerged with the body of his wife, placed it on the pyre and set it alight.

The Ambassador was well connected at home; but, after an awkward interval, he was recalled.

In 1984, Libyan dissidents protested outside the Libyan embassy in London. British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was killed by gunshots originating from the embassy.

To date, the identity of the shooter has not been confirmed, and the Libyan authorities made no effort to identify the culprit nor reveal whether the culprit was ever punished.

Two years later it became a major factor in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to allow US President Ronald Reagan to launch a bombing raid of Libya in 1986, from American bases in the United Kingdom.

Food for thought.

Till next time.