• Toby Irwin

The Principle of Diplomatic Immunity

Last night the British ambassador in Tehran, Rob Macaire, was briefly detained. As identified by Dominic Raab in a subsequent press release, this act violated international law. The ambassador, who tweeted this morning, remarked that he had attended a vigil for the aircraft victims, but had departed once the attendees had begun to chant. He was arrested approximately half an hour after this.

The violation of international law comes in the form of breaking the principle of diplomatic immunity. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, immunity can range from "criminal and civil and administrative jurisdiction to immunity for official acts only". The fundamentals of this concept lie in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The exchange of diplomats is established as a voluntary act, where the 'receiving' state must consciously accept to receive the 'sending' state's diplomat. Among the sending state's staff includes the ranks of 'ambassador', 'envoys', 'ministers' and ' 'chargés d’affaires'. Immunity extends both to staff, families and indeed the embassy itself which remains "inviolable".

Most crucial in the document with regards to recent events is Article 29:

"The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity."

Article 31 also is relevant:

"A diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving State. He shall also enjoy immunity from its civil and administrative jurisdiction," ... except in the case of actions against property not administered by the sending state, actions relating to succession, and professional/commercial activities outwith the remit of his diplomatic functions.

For the sake of clarity, Iran may have tried to claim that the British action violated Article 41, which establishes that the diplomat should not interfere with the "internal affairs of that state". This may have been interpreted as such if the ambassador had been at any form of political process, but since Mr Macaire departed the vigil as chanting began, this cannot be claimed to be the case.




Cover Photo: Congress of Berlin 1878

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.