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A Cheap Political Trick

Expelling Diplomats: the Downside

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Beirut.

The recent massacre has whipped up a new wave of outrage at the claimed brutality of Syria’s government. Syrian envoys were kicked out of some western capitals, more financial sanctions slapped on the regime in Damascus, and more furious demands are being made for a regime change toppling Bashar al-Assad and more calls for military intervention issued.

The civilized world kicking out Syrian diplomats was to be the thin reed of straw that would certainly break the camel’s back in Damascus’ Presidential Palace.

However, expelling Syrian diplomats, who no one is even suggesting had anything to do with the massacre at Houla, constitutes a politically cheap feel good knee jerk reaction to the horrific images from the slaughter at Houla.  Certainly the images of chopped bodies and that of a precious baby with a pacifier in its mouth and a bullet hole in its temple  reminded many of us of the My Lai, Sabra-Shatila, Srebrenica, and Rwanda massacres to note just a few. Encouraging a global reaction, some in Washington vowed that the Obama doctrine and the right to protect (R2P) could not allow the Syrian regime to remain in power and Houla was to be the game changer.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 signed by 186 countries constructed a frame for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enables diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion, harassment or politically motivated expulsions by the host country. Its articles are a cornerstone of modern international relations.

 

While Article 9 does grant the host nation the right to declare a particular member of the diplomatic staff to be persona non grata, the understanding of the drafters of the Vienna Convention and the trauvaux preparatoire make plain that the provision is to be used solely for high crimes and under no circumstances to embarrass or trivialize the sending government or its diplomatic mission.  The US action with respect to expelling Syrian diplomats does both.

As diplomacy is the practice of conducting international relations, as in negotiating alliances, treaties, and agreements, it is difficult to take seriously White House and NATO claims of a preference for diplomacy rather than war with Syria, while they lead the campaign to expel the very Syrian diplomats necessary for dialogue and negotiations.

The premises of the US diplomatic mission in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, came under attack during the night of 6/5/12.  The US embassy is Damascus had been closed earlier in the crisis, and the US Embassy in Beirut is on near lock down status with plans to close and evacuate staff on one hours’ notice if deemed prudent.  These events highlight the importance of respecting the 1961 Vienna Convention and not expelling diplomats as political gamesmanship because the rash expulsions may not only generate unintended consequences, but inevitably invite retaliatory expulsions. Hence the Syrian government declared 17 US and Western diplomats, persona non grata earlier this week. Syria’s much respected Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Makdad told the media in Damascus that, “We waited for so long for the other side to correct their policies and offer the needed support to Annan’s plan and the observers’ mission. But we regret that we had to take this measure because they do not want this mission to succeed.”

 

The gratuitous chest thumping political theatre led by Washington also undermines international treaty law while eroding respect for the nearly universally agreed to protections of diplomats, envoys, embassies and consulates.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and can be contacted c/o fplamb@gmail.com