The legalities of what occurs inside embassies, and the actions of embassy personnel, have been in the news often of late. I think largely as the result of the death of the Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, likely at the hands of Saudi agents. Diplomatic immunity was also subject to discussion in the seventeenth-century English press, as illustrated by the Sàcase. The incident concerned the brother of the Portuguese ambassador to Cromwell, who killed a man in a brawl and thus sparked an international argument regarding the extraterritorial rights of diplomats.
Rather more recently, a human rights protester climbed onto the roof of the Bahrain Embassy in London. After he began to demonstrate against the executions of two torture victims in Bahrain, he was (according to video footage and his own testimony) attacked by what seem to be embassy personnel. On the ground, UK police shouted at these persons to return inside. When they continued to beat the protestor, the police actually forced their way into the embassy in the belief that the man’s life was threatened. Bahrain has since complained about the violation of international conventions forbidding a host country from entering an embassy without invitation. This concept – embassy extraterritoriality or inviolability – is not modern. Far from it. To what it applies, on the other hand, is.
In 1635, a Catholic priest seeking sanctuary was forcibly removed from the residence of the French ambassador extraordinary, causing an uproar. The diplomat complained to John Finet, the Master of Ceremonies, that the house “the king his masters more than his” had been violated by the English authorities, and he demanded the return of the priest. What is worth noting, is that the residence in question actually belonged to Abraham Williams. By this point in the reign of Charles I, it had become the house that the English government usually accorded such a diplomat for a short stay.
It was certainly notan ’embassy’ as we think of it now – a particular building actually owned or leased by a foreign entity, through which their business abroad is conducted, but where the ambassador may not necessarily reside. And yet the ambassador in this instance considered the residence lent to him to be the property of the French king, and thus not subject to local jurisdiction. This was not contested by the English government, and the priest was returned to his custody following some administrative legwork. It was understood that extraterritoriality was tied to the person of the ambassador – not a specific locale.
This has long been demonstrated by historians, with the seminal work on the subject published in 1929 by Edward Adair. The nuances, and possible effects of other Early Modern developments on the concept – such as the evolution of capitalism over the same period – are only now coming to light. And our modern notion of extraterritoriality, was not in fact codified until the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which laid out the privileges granted to diplomatic missions – including the provision that a host country cannot enter the premises of a diplomatic mission. And even this treaty has not been uniformly signed and ratified.
Adair, Edward Rober. The extraterritoriality of ambassadors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. London: Longmans & Co, 1929.
Finet, John and Albert J. Loomie, ed. The Note Books of John Fine, Master of Ceremonies, 1628-1641. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987: pp. 182-84.
Frey, Linda and Marsha Frey. “The bounds of immunity: the Sàcase. Politics, law, and diplomacy in Commonwealth England.” In TheCanadian Journal of History25, no. 1 (1990): 41-60.
Pal, Maïa. “Early modern extraterritoriality, diplomacy, and the transition to capitalism.” In The extraterritoriality of law. History, theory, politics. Edited by Daniel S. Margolies, Umut Özsu, Maïa Pal and Ntina Tzouvala. New York: Routledge, 2019 (e-book edition).
“Police break down door of Bahrain Embassy in UK after roof protester ‘threatened’.” August 7, 2019. Channel 4 News.