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Reaffirming the foundations of diplomacy: The brighter side of the Mexican embassy incident

Published on 08 April 2024

On April 4th, the sanctity of diplomatic premises was shaken at its core as Ecuadorian special forces ventured into the Mexican Embassy in Quito. It wasn’t just about capturing Jorge Glas, the former vice president of Ecuador, whom Mexico protected with diplomatic asylum. This action cast a shadow over the age-old principle of embassy inviolability and the tradition of diplomatic asylum—a practice deeply rooted in the tumultuous annals of Latin American history.

The Quito incident triggered widespread condemnation by Latin American countries, regardless of the political affiliations of their governments. Such a reaction provides a positive signal for rebuilding respect for international law and diplomacy. 

The bedrock of diplomatic immunity

Diplomatic immunities have a long millennium history. They were granted in the early days of human communication when our predecessors realised that hearing the message was better than harming the messenger. 

Early practices of diplomatic immunities can be traced to the Australian aborigines, the Institutes of Manu, and ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. The protections of messengers and negotiators could be found in holy texts, reflecting their core relevance for humanity. 

An early written reference to immunities of negotiators can be found in Amarna letters, the first diplomatic archive from ancient Egypt. In Renaissance Italy, establishing the first permanent embassies in the 15th century was accompanied by rules for their protection. Customary practices and rules of diplomatic immunity were first codified by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They got the current legal form with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, which is universally accepted.

Ecuador’s raid and recent attack of Israel on the Iranian consulate in Damascus challenge this long tradition and threaten the very fabric of diplomacy and international relations. 

The Latin American legacy of diplomatic asylum

The Quito incident calls into question the long-standing regional tradition of diplomatic asylum in Latin America.

In the 19th century, newly established Latin American countries started the practice of diplomatic asylum. This regional customary law was codified by the 1928 Havana Convention on Rights of Asylum, the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, and the 1954 Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum

Granting diplomatic asylum helped calm the security crisis in Latin America’s turbulent history and protect human lives at risk.

Unified response

The reaction of Latin America to the Quito incident brings some good news for the future of diplomacy and international law.  

Unsurprisingly, Mexico suspended diplomatic relations with Ecuador and announced legal action in the International Court of Justice; other countries condemned this act of violating diplomatic immunities. Brazil, Columbia, Chile and other left-governed countries strongly condemned Ecuardo’s action. Nicaragua went further by suspending diplomatic relations with Ecuador in solidarity with Mexico.

The most relevant reaction came from Argentina, whose right-wing government is politically close to Ecuador. However, Argentina condemned Ecuador’s breach of diplomatic immunity. In addition, Argentina called for the full observation of the 1954 Convention on Diplomatic Relations, considering a new crisis with six Venezuelan politicians requesting diplomatic asylum in the Argentinian embassy in Caracas on 26 March.

The Argentinian reaction to the Quito raid was more motivated by the relevance of interdependence in diplomatic affairs than by political affinity with the Ecuadorian government.

Way forward

The lights should be on now on how Venezuela will handle the asylum crisis in the Argentinian embassy in Caracas. If Venezuela follows Ecuador’s reaction and raids the Argentinian embassy in Caracas, it will put the Latin American tradition of diplomatic asylum in serious danger. If Argentina and Venezuela find a diplomatic solution, it will have a far-reaching global impact. 

As Colombian President Gustavo Petro argued in a post on platform X that Latin America “must keep alive the precepts of international law in the midst of the barbarism that is advancing in the world.” 

Breaches of diplomatic law in Ecuador and an Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus a few weeks ago are a wake-up call, urging a collective reinforcement of our commitment to international law and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

If Latin America gets it right in the current crisis, it will also help rebuild trust in diplomacy and the thousand-year-old human tradition of protecting the “messenger,” whatever the “message” is.

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