For the first time in this century, a host government has been party to the invasion of an embassy and the kidnapping of diplomatic personnel. It was an event for which we Americans were ill prepared, and in seeking a solution we have flailed about with little effect. We have tried economic sanctions, but no one believes they will procure the release of the hostages. We have attempted a risky rescue operation, but it did not work. We have appealed to the United Nations and the International Court, but those institutions have proved powerless.
Though we have so far concentrated on the immediate problem of 53 Americans in captivity, this incident will probably mark the beginning of a trend. Irresponsible governments, like irresponsible individuals, are incorrigibly suggestible and, just as the first airplane hijacking set in train a series of similar outrages, so one vicious government's involvement in kidnapping is likely to inspire others to similar action.
To be prudent, we should, therefore, exploit the world's fleeting concern with the current outrage to create an automatic international response to future outrages. That response should not take the form of economic sanctions. Except in the case of small islands, sanctions are hard to enforce even by military means, and they were certainly ill suited for a country whose big neighbor, Russia, was prepared to make up supply shortfalls. It is not surprising that, in view of the futility of those sanctions and the probability they would do little but expand Soviet influence, our allies have given them only halfhearted support.
Today, the sanctity of embassies is guaranteed by the Vienna Convention of 1961 together with an optional protocol for the settlement of disputes through the International Court of Justice. Since the Unites States and Iran were signatories both to the convention and the protocol, the International Court machinery has already been invoked and exhausted. Unfortunately, no means now exits to enforce decrees of the court except through the futile procedures of the United Nations.
We could create appropriate enforcement measures by amending the convention to require a unified response by the signatory governments. Such amendment might provide that, if the International Court finds that any government (signatory or otherwise) has impaired, or condoned the impairment of, the inviolable rights of embassy and diplomatic personnel, which the convention guarantees to signatory nations, all other signatory nations would, so long as that impairment remained uncured, break diplomatic relations with the offending government, withdraw their missions to that government and expel that government's embassy from their capitals.
Since it would take time to negotiate such an amendment within the framework of a large international meeting -- and some small nations might refuse to join -- we might, as an interim measure, negotiate a provisional protocol with a limited number of signatory nations, presumably the members of the Western Alliance and other major trading countries such as Japan, that would bind them to break relations and withdraw their embassies if a new outrage should occur before the negotiation of the defiinitive amendment.
The response I have outlined would have several advantages. It would take the argument out of the framework of bilateral relations between the two nations affected. It would not require an aggrieved nation to initiate retributive action; that action would be taken automatically under pre-existing international agreement. Nor would the resulting measures impose hardship on the people of the offending country and thus play into the hands of a scheming neighbor; their persuasive power would derive instead from universal disapproval through political isolation.
While no one could guarantee that this proposal would unfailingly deter fanatical governments from seizing embassies, it would undoubtedly have a discouraging effect, particularly on governments that faced the decision -- as in the Iranian case -- whether to condone or suppress a kidnapping by private factions. In addition, it would put governments under pressure to give up hostages once they were taken. Instead of our having turned over to Iranian fanatics the greatest publicity apparatus in the world through which to trumpet their hatred of the shah and America, the operation of this scheme would have reduced their visibility and, by frustrating their exhibitionism, gradually let more moderate influences prevail. The Athenians understood the efficacy of ostracism; it is a lesson we should take to heart.
No government in modern times can comfortably live in diplomatic isolation; that not only labels it as a pariah but seriously interferes with essential mechanisms of international trade, since many required permissions and licenses are now arranged through embassy facilities. Moreover, because the imposing of isolation would automatically follow the violation of a fundamental international principle, it could not be easily exploited by the Soviet Union or other adversary nations. They too have an interest in the protection of their foreign missions.
Finally, the withdrawal of embassies is the only punishment that fits the crime. How can any country prudently maintain a mission in a foreign country whose government has demonstrated that it will not protect that mission and, indeed, that it may actually conspire to violate the rights of its diplomatic personnel?