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regular-article-logo Monday, 20 May 2024

Shelter stormed

Notwithstanding a repeated his­tory of strikes and counterstrikes as part of the shadow war between Israel and Iran, an attack from an aircraft on a diplomatic building is unusual

T.C.A. Raghavan Published 19.04.24, 06:43 AM
Ecuadorian police forces prepare to enter the Mexican embassy in Quito to arrest Ecuador’s former vice-president, Jorge Glas, on April 5, 2024

Ecuadorian police forces prepare to enter the Mexican embassy in Quito to arrest Ecuador’s former vice-president, Jorge Glas, on April 5, 2024 Sourced by the Telegraph

In the past three weeks, a long-standing diplomatic practice and principle of international law — the sanctity of diplomatic missions — has come into question. In faraway Ecuador, the Mexican embassy’s diplomatic immunity was violated when the local police forced their way in on April 5 to arrest the local politician and former vice-president of Ecuador, Jorge Glas, who had taken refuge there to escape imminent arrest on charges of corruption and embezzlement.

Local political tussles and the friction-prone relationship bet­ween Mexico and Ecuador underlie this issue. But when a principle as strong as the immunity of diplomatic premises is infringed, such local explanatory factors retreat into insignificance. This was, after all, an egregious breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations with a host government violating the sanctity of a diplomatic mission in its territory. Mexico has since severed diplomatic relations with Ecuador and also lodged a complaint with the International Court of Justice.

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Ecuador is no stranger to asylum and immunity controversies. The activist and WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012 to escape arrest in a Swedish criminal investigation and because he feared being extradited to the United States of America. Ecuador granted him asylum in August 2012 and Assange remained in the embassy for almost seven years. This long-drawn drama came to an end in 2019 when Assange’s asylum was withdrawn by the Ecuadorian government owing to its own differences with him. The London police were invited into the embassy to arrest him. Incidentally, Assange remains in British custody, not for the original Swedish case but because of protracted legal proceedings for his extradition to the US.

On the other side of the globe, in West Asia, diplomatic immunities were infringed even more dramatically. On April 1, Israeli aircraft targeted part of the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, killing a number of senior Iranian military and intelligence officers who had gathered there for a meeting.

The ties between Israel and Iran have been particularly fraught since the October 2023 Hamas-led attack on civilian and military targets within Israel. The explanation on behalf of Israel — the attack on the Iranian embassy is not officially acknowledged, of course — is that the embassy building in Damascus functioned as a base for Iranian intelligence and a liaison point with Palestinian militant groups.

Notwithstanding a repeated his­tory of strikes and counterstrikes as part of the shadow war between Israel and Iran, an attack from an aircraft on a diplomatic building is unusual. Although, unlike in the case of Ecuador, the attack was on a foreign embassy in a third country. Yet, the convention of respecting foreign embassies in general has been a relatively strong one.

The lack of international outrage about this latest development notwithstanding, attacking diplomatic premises is usually a red line in international affairs. However, the US and Israel seldom observe any particular norms when it comes to Iran; nor does Iran vis-à-vis them. Current fault lines between Iran and the US emerged in November 1979 when the US embassy was stormed and its diplomats and personnel taken hostage. This was Iran in the throes of revolution. This fault line crystalised thereafter over the 400-plus days that the hostages were forcibly held in Iran. It has not only remained since then but also deepened into a major axis of geopolitical conflict. The 1979 precedent thus remains a background factor while assessing the current situation.

In a different context, infringement of diplomatic immunity has been settled through diplomacy and keeping in mind the bigger picture. In May 1999, during NATO’s air bombing of former Yugoslavia, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed by a US aircraft, resulting in some fatalities. The US clarified that this was a mistake and apologised. Many believed that the bombing was deliberate and there was great outrage in China along with anti-US demonstrations in which some US diplomatic properties were damaged. Diplomacy, however, prevailed swiftly and the matter was settled with the US paying significant amounts as compensation to China. The Chinese also paid compensation — but far less — for the damage to US properties. Essentially, this was still a honeymoon period in China-US relations and both sides implicitly acknowledged that their larger interests converged so a single event should not derail the relationship.

In other cases, attacks on diplomatic missions have remained unresolved and become part of the bedrock of strategic mistrust between the countries concerned. In this category is the mob attack on the residence of the Indian consul-general in Karachi, Pakistan, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. The building was ransacked but, fortunately, there was no loss of life. More serious was a car-bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008 in which a number of personnel, including senior diplomats, were killed. The Haqqani network within the Taliban was believed to be responsible for the attack but it was obvious that Pakistani intelligence had a hand in it. Both incidents remain unaddressed. But the irony, of course, is that the forces nurtured by Pakistan now regularly haunt it from different directions.

Iran retaliated against the attack on its embassy with a mass drone-cum-missile attack on Israel on April 13, most of which appears to have been effectively shielded off. The world now waits to see the next stage of this drama and whether and how Israel will respond to the Iranian retaliation. The embassy attack will necessarily get pushed into the background as an older history of geopolitical conflict asserts itself. But the point is that the situation has become more serious than it was before April 1 because the attack on its embassy signified to Iran that Israel had attacked its territory. Similarly, the Iranian response with drones and missiles is seen as a direct attack on Israel. A war fought thus far in the shadows and through proxies is incrementally becoming more direct. That, surely, is something we all must worry about.

T.C.A. Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan and Singapore. His latest book is Circles of Freedom: Friendship, Love and Loyalty in the Indian National Struggle

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