Is a norm still a norm when you feel free to ignore it at will? The Guardian reports today that a hidden microphone was found in the embassy of Ecuador to the UK. The Ecuadorian embassy hosts Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been staying on embassy premises for more than a year now to avoid extradition to Sweden.
With recent revelations regarding UK agencies spying on G20 delegates in 2009, a common response is to say that spying is a natural part of the game. While diplomacy and intelligence gathering are separate activities, diplomacy depends on intelligence to make accurate judgments. So far, so good. However, this case is different and even more serious in my opinion. There are a number of established norms of the game of diplomacy. Some of these norms are codified; the most important of these codifications is the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Article 22, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
1.The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2.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.
3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.
The key sentence is worth repeating here: “The premises of the mission shall be inviolable.” Ricardo Patino, the Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs who visited Assange at the time the microphone was found said, "we are sorry to say so, but this is another instance of a loss of ethics at the international level in relations between governments."
I think the question we need to start asking is what happens if this ”loss of ethics“ becomes widespread. A norm works because most people most of the time accept it and live by it. The exceptional breach of the norm can be seen as its proof. However, this instance taken together with recent revelations regarding British spying on the G20 summit in 2009 and large-scale US NSA surveillance of European citizens, gives the impression that we are witnessing an erosion of the gentlemen’s (sic) agreement that governs the relations between states.
Want to read more from Diplo on this? Try these blog posts:
Aldo Matteucci on “Diplomacy and spying: ye olde chestnut“