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Sudanese protesters attack the U.S embassy in Khartoum Friday in a demonstration against an anti-Islam film. (MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH/REUTERS)
Sudanese protesters attack the U.S embassy in Khartoum Friday in a demonstration against an anti-Islam film. (MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH/REUTERS)

Ambassadors know they are living on the edge Add to ...

The mobs were angry about many things – about Western manipulation, colonialism, economic control and religion. Rising in protest, armed gangs began to lay siege to the embassies of the United States, Germany and Great Britain. One envoy was murdered.

The U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979? The Middle East, 2012? Actually, it was the Boxer Rebellion in China, more than a century earlier. Before it ended, in 1901, thousands of people, mainly Christians, had been killed, victims of the nationalistic campaign to cleanse China of foreign influence.

As they were then, embassies are by definition more than the remote branch offices of governments. They are often the front line in emerging conflicts, early warning signals of social and political currents that may be unstoppable. As such, they are not just witnesses to history but – as in Saigon in 1975 and Tehran in 1979 – integral parts of it.

While the tumultuous events of the past fortnight were painful reminders of the peril that hangs over the lives of foreign-service officers, they were also direct attacks on the interests of the United States and other nations.

By one name or another, embassies have been part of international relations for centuries. The modern incarnation is said to have emerged in 14th-century Italy, during the epoch of the city states, and was soon adopted across the continent. It was practical, efficient and, from its earliest days, provided governments with new and easier opportunities to spy on friends and enemies alike.

The embassy symbolizes “one of the key concepts of international law and peace,” says Alan Gotlieb, former Canadian ambassador to Washington. “It’s evolved into a way of keeping lines open through an extraterritorial presence.”

In time, the responsibilities of these missions expanded, from acting solely as the agent of their government to representing the interests of any citizen caught up in the machinery of the host nation, including giving refuge to dissidents. That humanitarian gesture gradually shifted the public perception of embassies – from mundane bureaus to important potential oases and sanctuaries for political and religious objectors.

“For many Americans, an embassy is a safe haven … when they get in trouble overseas,” observes Nicholas Kralev, author of a new book, America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy. “It’s a symbol of American pride and protection more than anything else. So a deadly attack does hit home in a way. [But] all U.S. diplomats know that they risk their lives just by showing up for work every day.”

If we think of embassies as a kind of official safe house, the reality is not quite that. Although embassies do enjoy a degree of extraterritorial status, they are not, as is often thought, sovereign territory. Under international law, they are still subject to the jurisdiction of host states.

The veneer of inviolability is “thin,” says Gar Pardy, who spent more than three decades with Canada’s foreign service. For someone who takes shelter in a foreign embassy, “it’s a very ambiguous existence, because once you take somebody in, it doesn’t mean you can necessarily get them out.”

One of the most famous cases involved Hungary’s Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who spent 15 years – from 1956 to 1971 – under the protection of the U.S. embassy in Budapest, before being allowed to go into exile.

That veneer, Mr. Pardy adds, does help explain the sense of outrage that follows any assault on an embassy.

Even more shocking than this week’s assault on U.S. missions in the Middle East was the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. That attack, depicted in a new Hollywood film, Argo, due for timely release next month, saw Iranian Revolutionary Guards hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Canada played a major role in that crisis – providing safe harbour to six American diplomats in the homes of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his senior deputy. After several weeks, as dramatized in the film, they were spirited out of the country, pretending to be Canadian filmmakers with false made-in-Canada documents.

“Had we not done that, they might not have gone free,” says Mr. Gotlieb, who was in Ottawa at the time and closely involved in the operation.

Canadian embassies and high commissions also helped evacuate children orphaned by the tribal conflict in Rwanda in 1994, and provided succour to stricken American diplomats after the bombing of the U.S. mission in Nairobi in 1998.

“You know you are living on the edge,” says Mr. Pardy, who was posted in Uganda during the bloody reign of Idi Amin. “All my grey hairs came from that period.”

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