A Return to “Diplomatic Asylum”?

by Peter Spiro

Uri Feldman and Josh Keating have this excellent piece now up over at Foreign Policy on the history and mechanics of diplomatic asylum, as now possibly playing out in the case of Chen Guangcheng. This in the wake of Wang Lijun, who got the Bo Xilai ball rolling and spent 30 hours holed up in the US consulate in Chengdu.  In a different register — because it involved a US citizen — Sam LaHood sought refuge in the US embassy Cairo for four weeks against criminal charges relating to the NGO activities in Egypt before being allowed to leave the country.

I had always thought “diplomatic asylum” something of a misnomer, as often paired with the common misunderstanding that embassy premises are extraterritorial (as in, that the US embassy in Beijing counts as US territory, which in fact it doesn’t).  Turns out that the term has some historical traction, even though the its operation now appears to turn on the inviolability of diplomatic premises under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and not any distinctive legal doctrine.  Much of that history played out in Latin America, where the revolutionary era of a century ago led to multiple accords regularizing the practice.  Feldman and Keating unearthed this definitive, lengthy 1975 report of the UN Secretary General on the subject, which makes for pretty interesting reading.

Are we about to see more of the same?  I doubt it.  The 1975 report documents what was a common practice.  As the FP notes, diplomatic asylum was also a recurrent thorn on the East Bloc’s side during the Cold War.  Today it just doesn’t seem that useful a tool; there is too much at stake in relations with countries like China, and human rights disputes are no doubt better managed without the high-theater that comes with these cases.

As Julian points out below, China is also unlikely to grant safe passage that would be required for these people to leave the country (the diplomatic premises are inviolable, but all bets are off once the person steps out into the street). It would be interesting to see what sort of instructions are being cabled out of the State Department on this, though — obviously it doesn’t look good to turn back dissidents to the lions.


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