The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 is an international treaty that defines a framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enable diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country. This forms the legal basis for diplomatic immunity. Its articles are considered a cornerstone of modern international relations. As of October 2018, it has been ratified by 192 states.
Throughout the history of sovereign states, diplomats have enjoyed a special status. Their function to negotiate agreements between states demands certain special privileges. An envoy from another nation is traditionally treated as a guest, their communications with their home nation treated as confidential, and their freedom from coercion and subjugation by the host nation treated as essential.
The first attempt to codify diplomatic immunity into diplomatic law occurred with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This was followed much later by the Convention regarding Diplomatic Officers (Havana, 1928).
The present treaty on the treatment of diplomats was the outcome of a draft by the International Law Commission. The treaty was adopted on 18 April 1961, by the United Nations Conference on Diplomatic Intercourse and Immunities held in Vienna, Austria, and first implemented on 24 April 1964. The same Conference also adopted the Optional Protocol concerning Acquisition of Nationality, the Optional Protocol concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes, the Final Act and four resolutions annexed to that Act. One notable aspect which came out of the 1961 treaty was the establishment of the Holy See’s diplomatic immunity status with other nations.
Two years later, the United Nations adopted a closely related treaty, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
The treaty is an extensive document, containing 53 articles. The following is a basic overview of its key provisions.
- Article 9. The host nation at any time and for any reason can declare a particular member of the diplomatic staff to be persona non grata. The sending state must recall this person within a reasonable period of time, or otherwise this person may lose their diplomatic immunity.
- Article 22. The premises of a diplomatic mission, such as an embassy, are inviolable and must not be entered by the host country except by permission of the head of the mission. Furthermore, the host country must protect the mission from intrusion or damage. The host country must never search the premises, nor seize its documents or property. Article 30 extends this provision to the private residence of the diplomats.
- Article 24 establishes that the archives and documents of a diplomatic mission are inviolable. The receiving country shall not seize or open such documents.
- Article 27. The host country must permit and protect free communication between the diplomats of the mission and their home country. A diplomatic bag must never be opened even on suspicion of abuse. A diplomatic courier must never be arrested or detained.
- Article 29. Diplomats must not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. They are immune from civil or criminal prosecution, though the sending country may waive this right under Article 32.
- Article 31.1c Actions not covered by diplomatic immunity: professional activity outside diplomat’s official functions.
- Article 34 speaks about tax exemption of diplomatic agents while Article 36 establishes that diplomatic agents are exempted from custom duties.
- Article 37. The family members of diplomats that are living in the host country enjoy most of the same protections as the diplomats themselves.
In the same year that the treaty was adopted, two amendment protocols were added. Countries may ratify the main treaty without necessarily ratifying these optional agreements.
- Concerning acquisition of nationality. The head of the mission, the staff of the mission, and their families, shall not acquire the nationality of the receiving country.
- Concerning compulsory settlement of disputes. Disputes arising from the interpretation of this treaty may be brought before the International Court of Justice.
State parties to the convention
As of October 2018, there are 192 state parties to the convention including all UN member states except Palau, the Solomon Islands, and South Sudan. Included as state parties are the Holy See and State of Palestine, the two UN observer states. The Republic of China signed and ratified the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations on 18 April 1961 and 19 December 1969 respectively prior to the UN granting China’s seat to The People’s Republic of China. There are no states that have signed the treaty but have not ratified it.