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Is it time for a review of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations?

Published on 16 April 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

Granting immunity to envoys is at least as old as written history, mentioned in some of the oldest texts (Amarna letters) and holy writings. In its modern form, diplomatic immunities are codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The Economist, in the article “No immunity here”, discusses problems in protecting diplomats in Venezuela:

On April 8th Guillermo Cholele, a Costa Rican attaché, was kidnapped for ransom. In January Mexico’s ambassador and his wife were abducted. Two months earlier, the Chilean consul was shot and wounded by kidnappers. In all, around a dozen cases have been reported publicly in the past two years.

Although the Economist article focuses on the security situation in Venezuela, it opens the broader issue of diplomatic immunity in modern times. Article 29 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that the host state ‘shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person (the diplomat’s), freedom or dignity.’ The negotiators of the Vienna Convention spent months negotiating the level of protection, dismissing other proposals, such as ‘all necessary’, and ‘all required’, and agreeing to accept the vaguest formulation ‘all appropriate’. What is the appropriate level of protection of diplomats in a city with a high crime rate, such as Caracas?

The main spirit of the Vienna Convention was to ensure that a diplomat is not disturbed in his work, by the authorities of the receiving state. There was a tacit assumption that the receiving state could ensure public order and the protection of diplomats from criminal and similar activities. But with the increasing challenges the state faces to protect the legal order in many – not only “failed states” — there is a question of how to define “all appropriate” measures. Did Venezuela take “all appropriate” measures in protecting diplomats who were kidnapped or attacked?

Article 29 of the Vienna Convention is vague, and it may require only a reinterpretation of what is appropriate protection in modern times.

However, some other articles may require redrafting to update the convention. The Internet and social media communication put some provisions of the Vienna Convention out of sync with current times. This is particularly the case with the facilitation of the free communication of diplomatic missions (Article 27). Should diplomatic e-mail enjoy the same protection as the traditional diplomatic valise? Article 41, which regulates communication with local entities may require redrafting. If the second part of Article 41 is strictly interpreted, many modern e-diplomats using blog, Twitter and Facebook would be considered persona non grata:

2. All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed.

Is it time for a review of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations?


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