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Introduction:  The realm of diplomacy, with its rituals, specialized language, and critical role in international relations, offers a fascinating glimpse into how countries manage their relationships both peaceful and contentious.  When popular culture or the media portray the diplomatic world, it is frequently presented as the province of posh receptions and international intrigue.  While there is some truth to that, the reality is more often considerably more mundane.  As a veteran of the State Department and the United Nations, I often find the errors in the representation of, and the terminology used in portraying, the diplomatic world to be a bit grating.  With this post, I hope to dispel some of those errors and misperceptions.  In the primer below, I aim to elucidate some of the key aspects of the diplomatic world, navigating through terms and concepts central to understanding modern diplomacy.  What follows is a list of some important diplomatic terms and related commentary.

A diplomatic term that everyone is familiar with is “embassy.”  An embassy serves as the chief diplomatic representation of one sovereign nation within the territory of another.  It is typically located in the capital city of the host country and is headed by an ambassador (see below). The embassy is the main site for political, military, cultural, and social relations between the two countries.  It also plays a crucial role in diplomatic negotiations and is a hub for information about the host country’s policies, attitudes, and conditions.  An embassy is entitled to certain privileges and immunities under international law which restrict the rights of host country authorities to access the embassy’s premises and the records held therein (see below).  Readers may recall that it was these rules that allowed the Ecuadorean embassy in London to grant asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and thereby shield him from arrest by British authorities for seven years, setting off an extended diplomatic row between Ecuador and the U.K.  A common misperception is that an embassy is the territory of the country whose embassy it is.  In fact, a foreign embassy or consulate is the territory of the host state; it is just that it has a special legal status due to the privileges and immunities accorded to it, such as the inviolability of its premises.  The only exception to an embassy’s inviolability is when host state authorities need to enter the premises for purposes of public safety (e.g., a fire or hot pursuit of an armed criminal).

A term which people frequently confuse with an embassy is “consulate.”  A consulate is a branch of an embassy that handles a variety of important functions, such as issuing visas, assisting citizens of the consulate’s home country (for example, when they are arrested or when a relative dies), and promoting trade and cultural exchanges.  Consulates are usually found in major cities outside of the capital.  They serve as a more accessible point of contact for travelers and expatriates than the embassy.  Embassies also carry out consular activities from what is referred to as their “consular section.”  Like an embassy, a consulate is entitled to certain privileges and immunities that prohibit entry, or access to records, by host state authorities, except in the case of certain emergencies.

A third type of diplomatic office is a “mission,” which refers to the premises of a group or delegation officially dispatched by one government to another or to an international organization.  In the case of international organizations, a mission serves as the permanent diplomatic office of a member state accredited to the organization.   For instance, the missions of member states of the United Nations contain the permanent delegations of those states to the U.N. and manage their participation in the workings of the organization.  Like embassies and consulates, missions also enjoy certain privileges and immunities that depend on the organization to which the mission is accredited.

An “ambassador” is the highest-ranking diplomat who represents a nation in another sovereign nation or within an international organization.  Appointed by the sending state’s government, the ambassador has the authority to speak on behalf of their government.  They are usually based in an embassy or a mission and play vital roles in diplomatic relations, such as negotiating with the host nation or representing their government in international forums.   In order to take up a U.S. ambassadorial post, appointees must first receive the advice and consent of the Senate, which can at times get held up by political obstacles.  While most U.S. ambassadors are recruited from career officers in the Foreign Service, a significant number of ambassadors are derived from among major donors to the party in power.

A “consul” is an official who heads up a consulate and who is responsible for overseeing the performance of consular activities in the host country (see “consulate” above).  When diplomatic relations are first being established with a country, the consul may be the most senior diplomatic officer in the host country until an embassy is established.

A “chargé d’affaires” is a diplomat at an embassy who serves as chief diplomatic officer in the absence of an ambassador.  Such absence may occur in the case of less significant posts, in countries where no ambassador has been assigned, or where no ambassador has yet been accredited to the country, perhaps because Senate consent to the ambassador’s appointment has not yet been received.  (The title “chargé d’affaires” is an example of a diplomatic term that has its origins from the time when French was the international language of diplomacy.)

The “chief of mission” is the principal officer in charge of a diplomatic office.  (Usually, the ambassador is the chief of mission at an embassy.)   The chief of a U.S. mission has full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all executive branch personnel in that country, except for those under the command of a U.S. area military commander.

The “deputy chief of mission” is effectively the second-in-command at an embassy, assisting the ambassador in all aspects of embassy operations.  This role is crucial during the ambassador’s absence, as the deputy chief of mission assumes the title of chargé d’affaires and acts as the chief of mission (see above), ensuring continuity of diplomatic activities and management of the embassy staff.

Diplomatic immunity” is an area of international law that provides foreign diplomats and diplomatic premises protection from the jurisdiction of the host country’s legal and other authorities.  It ensures that diplomats can perform their duties with freedom and without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country’s government or legal institutions.  The concept of diplomatic immunity is complex and frequently misunderstood.  For example, many people believe that it gives diplomats license to violate the host country’s laws without accountability.  In fact, diplomats are required to abide by the host country’s laws, and it is important to note that the diplomat’s immunity belongs to their government and not to the individual diplomat.  This means that the diplomat’s government has the power to waive the diplomat’s immunity if it so wishes.  While waivers of immunity for purposes of criminal prosecution are rare, the U.S. may waive the immunity of one of its diplomats in cases where the host country’s legal system is considered fair and just and U.S. courts would not have jurisdiction over the case.  The degree of immunity accorded to a diplomat varies depending on the type and rank of the diplomat.   For example, while diplomatic personnel accredited to an embassy are entitled to full immunity from criminal prosecution (the highest level of immunity), consular officers are entitled only to immunity for their official acts (although in some cases, U.S. consular officers are entitled to full immunity by virtue of a bilateral treaty with the host state).  While there have been cases of abuse of diplomatic immunity (some of which have received extensive media attention), such cases are very rare, and cases of serious misconduct by U.S. diplomatic personnel posted abroad are extremely rare.  Where the diplomat’s government refuses to waive the immunity of a diplomat who has violated the host country’s laws, the host country has the option of declaring the diplomat persona non grata (see below) and require them to leave the country.  As part of their immunity, diplomatic personnel are not subject to a court’s order to provide testimony in a case; however, the U.S. Government will normally waive the diplomat’s immunity so that they may testify in a pending case in the interests of justice.

The privileges and immunities granted to embassies, consulates, diplomats, and consular officers are the subject of two widely adhered to international agreements: the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.  However, most of the provisions of these two conventions are binding even on countries that are not party to them, as they are considered rules of customary international law (“customary international law” refers to rules that reflect the consistent practice of states over time and thereby become binding on all states).  The U.S. has bilateral agreements with many countries granting consular officers the higher level of privileges and immunities accorded to diplomatic officers.

The “diplomatic pouch” is the means by which correspondence and other items needed for official purposes can be transported to or from a diplomatic office without being subject to search or seizure.  While use of the term may conjure up images of a velvet bag with an embroidered seal of the country whose pouch it is, diplomatic pouches can be quite large and merely need to be identified as being a diplomatic pouch in order to enjoy their special status.  In the case of sensitive items being transported by diplomatic pouch, escorts from the country whose pouch it is may accompany the pouch.  While the pouch is only supposed to be used for official purposes, there have been rare cases where the pouch’s inviolability has been abused, for example to smuggle items.

Persona non grata,” literally meaning “an unwelcome person,” is a status occasionally applied to diplomats who are no longer acceptable to the government of the host country.  This can occur in various situations, including where the diplomat has engaged in unacceptable conduct or activities incompatible with their diplomatic roles (e.g., criminal conduct, spying).  In some cases, a host country may declare a diplomat of a sending state to be persona non grata as retaliation for the declaration by that sending state of one of the host country’s diplomats as persona non grata.  When a persona non grata declaration is made, the sending country is obliged to recall the diplomat and, if it does not, the diplomat’s accreditation to the host country and their immunity may be revoked.  The host country will usually give the diplomat a set period of time by which they must leave the country, which depending on the circumstances giving rise to the declaration, may be as short as 48 hours in some particularly sensitive cases.

Conclusion:  The intricate dance of diplomacy hinges on the rules and practices described above.  Understanding at least some of the most important of these is essential for appreciating the subtle art through which nations navigate their most sensitive and vital interactions and for using correct terminology when discussing diplomatic activities.  As globalization knits the world ever closer together, the importance of skilled diplomacy remains a paramount concern in maintaining international peace and cooperation.  As the nation with the most diplomatic personnel and offices around the world, the U.S. is the foremost beneficiary of the legal regime and practices described above.