Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An International Legal Perspective of the British Embassy Attack in Tehran

Iran has done it again. On 28th November 2011, Iranian protestors stormed the British Embassy compound and a diplomatic residence, tearing down the British flag, breaking windows, vandalizing walls and  holding six embassy staffers “hostage” for a short time. The protest which appeared to have the full support of the Iranian government was in response to Britain’s harsh new sanctions against Iran for its ongoing nuclear weapons’ programme. The incident brought back memories of the diplomatic crisis between Iran and the US when 52 American Embassy personnel were held hostage for 444 days from 4th November 1979 to 20th January 1981 after a group of Islamist students and militants took over the US Embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian Revolution.

The attack on Tuesday began when about 50 protesters invaded the offices in the vast walled compound housing the British Embassy and its manicured grounds, situated in a busy neighborhood in the heart of Tehran. Outside the gates, thousands of student protesters chanted religious slogans and demanded the expulsion of the British ambassador. In the meantime, 200 to 300 others broke into a British diplomatic residence a few miles north of the embassy, called Qolhak Garden. The facility also houses a school. 

Television images showed protesters, some armed with gasoline bombs, rampaging through offices strewn with papers, and at least one vehicle was shown burning inside the compound. There was ample evidence of the state’s complicity in the attack: police was shown as silent spectators in television footage, and in any case the security forces have maintained strict control over all large protests in Iran ever since the disputed presidential election of 2009. Further evidence of Tehran’s complicity in the attack is apparent from the fact that the embassy attack came a day after Iran’s Parliament approved a measure to expel the British ambassador and downgrade diplomatic relations between the two countries, in retaliation for Britain’s new economic sanctions.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that police officers freed six British staff members who had been surrounded by the Qolhak Garden protesters and that 12 of those protesters were later arrested.

The Iranian authorities have organized similar political demonstrations against foreign embassies in the past, intervening only after the protest was well under way and the message was clear.

This attack very clearly proves that Iran has scant regard for the provisions of international law and particularly the provisions of Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961.

Article 22 (1) of the Vienna Convention stipulates that the premises of the mission are inviolable and the agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
Article 22 (2) of the 1961 Convention enjoins on the receiving State (the host country) take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.

So also Article 30 provides that the private residence of a diplomatic agent shall enjoy the same inviolability and protection as the premises of the mission.

Article 29 lays down that the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.

All the three provisions referred to above were infringed with impunity in the incident in Tehran.

Iran, by permitting this attack, is also guilty of violation of the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents, 1973

A diplomat is an internationally protected person within the meaning of the above-mentioned Convention and at the time when and in the place where a crime against him, his official premises, his private accommodation or his means of transport is committed, is entitled pursuant to international law to special protection from any attack on his person, freedom or dignity, as well as members of his family forming part of his household.

The 1973 Convention vide Article 2 provides
1. The intentional commission of:
(a) A murder, kidnapping or other attack upon the person or liberty of an internationally protected person;
b) A violent attack upon the official premises, the private accommodation or the means of transport of an internationally protected person likely to endanger his person or liberty;
(c) A threat to commit any such attack;
(d) An attempt to commit any such attack; and
(e) An act constituting participation as an accomplice in any such attack shall be made by each State Party a crime under its internal law.

2. Each State Party shall make these crimes punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.

3. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of this article in no way derogate from the obligations of States Parties under international law to take all appropriate measures to prevent other attacks on the person, freedom or dignity of an internationally protected person.

Iran needs to be reminded that apart from the provisions of Vienna Convention, in Islamic tradition too, a messenger should not be harmed, even if coming from an arch-enemy and bearing a highly provocative or offensive message. A hadith attributes this sunnah to the time when Musaylimah sent to the Prophet Muhammad messengers who proclaimed Musaylimah be a Prophet of Allah and the co-equal of Muhammad himself.

Iran has in the past been indicted and held guilty by the International Court of Justice in the case involving seizure of the US Embassy and its personnel in 1979. In the case concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran decided on 24th May 1980 by the International Court of Justice, the Court, inter alia, held that the Islamic Republic of Iran, had violated in several respects, obligations owed by it to the United States of America under international conventions in force between the two countries, as well as under long-established rules of general international law. The Court also held that Iran was under an obligation to make reparation to the Government of the United States of America for the injury caused by the events of 4th November 1979 and what followed from these events.

Given Iran’s past record, it is indeed far-fetched to expect Iran to abide by the rules of international law. In such circumstances, international community must take cognizance of the inherently delinquent behaviour and adopt “strong measures” to deter and prevent Iran from violating the law of nations in general as well as international treaty obligations.


Australia in the Indian Ocean said...

Hi Kumar

I'll comment on your posts in the New Year.

Have a tranquil Christmas and a triumphant 2012 (except in the cricket :)

Your friend


Kumar said...

Hi Pete

I am probably a greater fan of the Aussies (cricket team, hockey & rugby included) than you can probably imagine.


shekhar athavale said...


Thanks for visiting my blog Sandprints. I like your blog

Australia in the Indian Ocean said...

Hi Kumar

Interesting post. The Iranians appear bent on public confrontation instead of more subtle reactions to the embargoes against them.

Perhaps it is for Iranian public consumption - demonstrating Iranain defience against most of the world. But this strategy has many costs, may be unsustainable and self-defeating.

On cricket India is being outbatted and outballed too quickly for me. A more even Indian-Australian Test Series would be more exciting.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete

Iran is a rogue state; a state with scant regard for international law. And IF it goes nuclear, it would probably turn out to be a nuclear rogue. An unstable nuclear Iran run by fanatical clerics is the last thing, the world would like to have. It is in the interest of the international community, that Iran's nuclear program is stopped.

A crisis seems to be unfolding in the Persian Gulf with Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Perhaps the US may have to carry out Operation Praying Mantis II. Only time will tell.