They did it again. On April 25, US inspectors broke into the Russian consulate in Seattle, which had been shuttered and vacated at the order of the American government, in a response to the Skripal case. The “inspection” was actually a break-in, since the locks had to be forced. The Russian staff had closed the mansion on April 24 but kept the keys, as the house is still the property of the Russian government. Officially, the Russian Federation (RF) still owns the mansion and its flag still flies from the roof, but the US owns the land and consular activities will no longer be authorized on that site.
The forced entry into the consulate was a flagrant violation of international law. True, the US government has the right to declare that the mission has been stripped of its diplomatic immunity. But it takes two to tango, and Russia never agreed to lift that immunity. That declaration has no validity without Russia’s consent.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 protects embassy and consulate property abroad by bestowing upon it the status of inviolability (Article 22). No unauthorized entry is allowed. Moreover, the host country is responsible for protecting all foreign missions from intrusions, damage, and similar events. Diplomatic sites cannot be searched. No document or property can be seized.
The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations states that consulates, along with their property, are always to be protected by their host, even during an armed conflict. No entrance without permission is allowed (Article 31).
According to the US-USSR Consular Convention of 1968, the diplomatic properties on each other’s soil are sacrosanct. The consulates enjoy diplomatic immunity. Like it or not, the US has just violated that document by entering the Seattle consulate.
As one can see, all the relevant international conventions state, by and large, the same thing—there is no entrance without permission. This is a hard-and-fast rule, but now all of these conventions have just been breached in broad daylight!
The question arises—what’s the use of signing agreements with someone who flouts them? Today they enter foreign compounds, tomorrow they unilaterally pull out of the Iran deal, and then what? The US can walk away from any major arms-control agreement, just like it abandoned the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2002. Washington signs agreements in order to force others to comply with them, while the US enjoys the freedom to interpret them at will. Nothing is binding upon that “shining city on a hill.”
The relevant domestic law in the US, the 1982 Foreign Missions Act, states that the secretary of state may demand that any foreign mission be stripped of its property if such a move is needed to protect US interests. This can be done provided that one year has passed from the date on which that foreign mission ceased its diplomatic or consular functions. In this case, one year has not passed. What’s more, no clear explanation is offered as to what exactly is meant by “US interests.” And in fact, this act is contradicted by international law. Why should a foreign mission comply with it, if all the conventions listed above are very explicit about property rights and the US is a party to all of them? Anyway, the US law is not relevant in this case, unlike the binding accords America has signed.
It is true that the two nations are engaged in an ongoing “diplomatic war.” That’s a process that’s easy to start and extremely difficult to end. It was not Moscow that started this folly. But even wars have their rules. The US actions are unprecedented and are doing serious damage to the country’s international image. The Seattle consulate’s closure has greatly complicated the lives of many people who have nothing to do with politics.
What about gains? There have been hardly any, especially taking into consideration that the US mission in St. Petersburg, which is going to be closed in response, is much more important for Americans than the consulate office in Seattle was for Russians. The expulsions and closures may go on until the ambassadors are the only ones left, but no one will win. “Tit-for-tat” expulsions are a game with no winners or losers. They are meaningless and doomed to ineffectuality
The ongoing Russian-US “diplomatic war” cannot continue forever. The day will inevitably come when Washington will have to reach some new agreements with Moscow about consulate offices. It’s highly likely that Russia will demand additional guarantees of the safety of its property on American soil. Other nations may follow suit.
Gross violations of international law inflict great damage. The US will not be trusted. It will be viewed as a state that can reject its commitments at any time it chooses. From now on, all nations will know that their embassies and consulates in the US are not protected by the international agreements the American government flouts so easily.
This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on-line journal.
Alex Gorka is a defense and diplomatic analyst.