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Is tweeting a breach of diplomatic function?

Published on 07 June 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

China’s environmental official criticised the US Embassy in Beijing for tweeting data on air-pollution in China – data collected by air-sensors at the Embassy’s premises.[1] Chinese officials said that such practice is in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). This follows similar criticism by the Russian authorities of intensive blogging by the US ambassador in Russia.

The more social media is used in diplomacy, the more we can expect to hear of such cases.  Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is likely to be the most controversial, specifying that diplomats should act in accordance with the law of the receiving state and conduct their official business via the ministry of foreign affairs.

China’s reaction reflects their cautious approach to and potential dilemmas with the position of diplomats in the Internet era. The complaint was placed by the Vice-Minister for the Environment, not the ministry of foreign affairs. Usually, in the case of a breach of the Vienna Convention (1961) protests are lodged by diplomatic note or in more extreme cases by declaring foreign diplomat(s) persona non grata (in this case, the US environmental representative, perhaps?). The Chinese authorities decided to send a diplomatic signal (i.e. express uneasiness) without escalating the conflict.

It is also interesting to see how US officials replied. They justified the sharing of air-pollution data on the basis of assisting American citizens in China; something they are entitled to do according to international law (Article 5e of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations – 1963).

Such cases illustrate the underlying tension between the traditional perceptions of diplomacy as strictly the representation of one country in another, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the view that diplomacy has the much broader task of engaging in local social and cultural dynamics, especially when it comes to protection of global values (e.g. human rights, environment).

Discussion in the most recent  Diplo’s course on diplomatic law reflected differeing views about wheter the external environment in which diplomats operate has been radically changed by the Internet revolution or remains fundamentally the same under the surface. 

Can the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations sustain the test of time? Does the Internet era require a redrafting of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations? What will be the function and status of diplomats in the future?


[1] The media coverage of tweeting by the US Embassy (Washington Post and New York Times) contains one ambiguity. It refers to Twitter which is not widely used in China mainly due to the filtering. The main mini-blogging platform in China with millions of followers is Weibo.



3 replies
  1. aldo
    aldo says:



    I’d agree it is an issue – but it looks a bit quaint to me.

    Here we have a situation where drones are being used to execute everyone and sundry a country does not like – including significant collateral damage – anywhere in the world as well as below and beyond the seas; where cyber wars are being conducted surreptitiously; where wars are being waged but not declared, and we could go on.

    It seems to me that the quaint world of the Diplomatic Convetions have long been eroded and look like statues covered by desert sand. May be it is part of the “state of denail” from which diplomacy suffers – it refuses to acknowledge the “dark side of diplomacy” (see one of my old blogs).

    • Jovan Kurbalija
      Jovan Kurbalija says:

      Aldo, three points (as usual)
      Aldo, three points (as usual):
      a) the Diplomatic Conventions are only one element in the shaping of policy scene. I would not bury them so quickly. Representation of communities in whatever form – with/out states – was, is and will remain important for functioning of human society. Representation is often delicate because it crosses, even in peaceful times, barriers of prejudice and tension. Thus representatives and envoys will always require some sort of a special status and protection.
      b) As you wrote in one of the latest posts, the rule setting is very often implicit. Even without the Vienna Conventions there will be rules for protecting foreign envoys. As a matter of fact, the Vienna Convention codified long tradition and custom.
      c) The real question is if the role of envoy and diplomacy will change substantially in the Internet era. With the growing trend of “territorilisaiton” of our life (including digital one), we may witness renessanse of traditional diplomacy with its core function of representation of territorial entities (mainly, but not only, national governments). The interplay between “traditional” and “new” diplomacy will determine the way how diplomatic status is regulated, including a possible re-drafting of the Vienna Conventions.

      • it's me
        it's me says:



        which “style” of diplomatic activity, first of all?

        I haven’t got the means to research it – but in my recollection there are two paradigms:
        (a) the French – which saw diplomatic service akin to a military structure, MFA squaring off against MFA;

        (b) the Austrian – were diplomats were also trained to go into the Balkans as Consuls and oversee local government of ethnic groups in the framework of Ottoman Capitulations. The Ottomans, who were Nomads to begin with, had a tradition of letting this happen (see how Genghis Khan organised the only true world empire).

        This matter with publishing weather data on twitter can be constructed of belonging in the second realm of dealing with subject ethnic groups in the other country’s territory. They were notionally some sort of “diaspora” – though they became so by treaty rather than by migration. (Remember: Hitler’s involvement in the Sudenten issue was based on international treaties, which were part of the Verseilles outcome, and gave Germans a “droit de regard” on ethnic Germans across the Chechoslovakian border).

        In many MFA consular services are having a renaissance. Why? The political and economic emergence of diasporas.

        Any diplomatic representation in a country nowadays has two “clienteles”: (a) the government structure (I’m skipping the aspect of federalism, which should be given due reflection and weakens your “territoriality” argument); (b) the diaspora.

        A novel, and most difficult emerging issue will be how to diplomatically to deal with diasporas. In the golden olden days, diasporas were ignored and despised by their home country (I exagerate): trators to the mother country all. Passports were taken away as soon as they took on a new nationality.

        Now diasporas are being courted: they are given political rights in their home country. They vote. Elections being tight affairs, they can decide the outcome (Berlusconi gave Italian diaspora the vote, expecting it to vote for him. He lost as a result instead).

        The more a country is involved in diasporas, the more is there potential for friction with the host country. Diasporas have more options than ordinary citizens in asserting rights (remember Paulus asserting Roman citizenship in order to escape local justice).

        The matters are evolving, then, but as usual in unforeseen ways. The Vienna Conventions are like Balzac’s “peau de chagrin” – the evewr shrinking Magic Skin.



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