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Defending Diplomacy in Court

DUBLIN – The recent revelations by the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden suggest, among other things, that surveillance devices were placed by the US National Security Agency in the European Union’s mission in Washington, DC. Many Europeans, including me, find it difficult to understand why the debate about Snowden in the United States has devoted so little attention to discovering whether his allegations are true, and, if they are, what that means for international law, US diplomacy, and America’s national security.

The US must respond to the allegations – first leveled in a report published by the German magazine Der Spiegel – and give a proper accounting of its actions. If it does not, the EU should take America to court.

The 1961 Vienna Convention, ratified by the US, codifies the international law of diplomacy and diplomatic missions. The US itself relied on the Convention in the case against Iran that it brought in 1980 before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, a year after Iranian students and others, with the revolutionary regime’s evident blessing, breached America’s embassy in Tehran and abducted its diplomats.

According to Article 22 of the Convention, “the premises of [a diplomatic] mission shall be inviolable,” and a “receiving state may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” Indeed, “[t]he receiving state is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion.” Likewise, Article 24 stipulates that the “archives and documents of the mission shall be inviolable,” and Article 27 extends similar protection to the mission’s correspondence.