On Oct. 2, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi stepped inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up some paperwork. His fiancee says he never came out.
In a speech this morning, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had evidence that the “brutal” murder was “planned,” and he called on Saudi Arabia to extradite the 18 men suspected of carrying out the crime. He also questioned the use of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, an international accord that dictates how host countries should treat diplomats and embassies on their soil. Erdogan said the deal should be “reviewed and possibly reversed.”
Turkish investigators had to wait nearly two weeks for permission from the Saudis to enter the consulate, and Turkish authorities have declined to arrest any Saudi officials. That’s because of a set of international laws governing how host countries must treat embassies and other diplomatic missions.
Embassies and consulates occupy a curious space. Though they stand on land belonging to their host nations, the Vienna Convention lays out clear rules for how a host country can behave. Under international law, police and security officials cannot enter an embassy without the express permission of the ambassador. Consular bags — special pouches that require a seal and can contain private paperwork, communications or other goods from the embassy, consulate or consul’s residence — are not to be opened by the host nation.
The convention also requires missions to respect local laws, and embassies are expected to stay out of host nations' internal affairs. Host nations do have the authority to revoke consular clearances for embassy staff and can revoke their diplomatic immunity, effectively forcing them to leave. Countries follow these rules because of the “rule of inviolability” — they want their embassies and consulates treated fairly, and the only way to guarantee that is to follow these rules when they are hosting diplomatic missions.
The rules — and arguments about what they really mean — have played a key role in several diplomatic crises over the years.
Soon after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London, British officials floated the idea of forcing entry into the building to seize him. (An arrest warrant had been issued.) The British Foreign Office argued that it had the right to revoke the embassy’s diplomatic status under the country’s Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, passed in 1987.
That law was passed after the killing of Yvonne Fletcher, a British police officer who was shot in 1984 while monitoring a protest outside the Libyan Embassy against then-ruler Moammar Gaddafi. The bullet that killed her was fired from within the embassy, but the killer was never identified. In the days that followed, British forces seized the embassy, expelled those inside and severed relations with Libya.
Ecuador, however, argued that revoking its embassy’s diplomatic status would be a “hostile and intolerable act.”