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A microphone in an embassy and a loss of ethics

Published on 04 July 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

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“

Katharina Hone on: “Blurred Lines and Lost Trust?… Diplomacy and Intelligence Gathering. Eavesdropping on G20 Delegates in 2009”

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1 reply
  1. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:



    Steve COLL, in the New Yorker, https://nyr.kr/14VehPo asks the only (in my view) pertinent question is this whole spying mess: is the benefit from spying worth the damage, if the government is caught red-handed?

    From the US point of view, spying was highly ethical: its intention was the purest of the pure – national security. Remember JFK? “We’ll spare no effort to defend liberty… ” I was taken in at the time.

    “Benefits and costs” is a poor analogy – and suffers from it. Weighing goals, ascertaining overt and covert consequences of our actions is what social life is all about – at the individual as well as at the state level. We have a good (if poorly understood) term for the outcome – adaptation – but we borrow from accounting the term for the reflective process. In doing so we introduce an unjustified element of grubbiness. Nothing is farther from the truth. We are not counting beans, but consequences.

    “Ethics” is nothing but fervor: running wild-eyed in pursuit of just one goal – whatever is the flavor of the day – and damn reality’s torpedoes.

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