A sad day for diplomacy

As the Dalai Lama puts it: “Through violence, you may ‘solve’ one problem, but you sow the seeds of another”.  He has also said “Violence always creates unexpected implications and counter-violence…”.

I read today’s news of the death of the US Ambassador to Libya with great sadness. Having grown up in a ‘foreign service’ family I know that diplomats often do their work in dangerous and unstable places – but they do so backed up by the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Art.22 of which says:

“The receiving State is under a special duty to 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.” (There is a Convention on Consular Relations, Art.31 of which extends the same duty to consular premises, in case you were wondering whether the US consulate in Benghazi was included).

Of course, we have all seen cases where the ‘receiving State’ has no wish to take such steps, and other cases where there is such chaos that it has no practical way of doing so – though the Conventions are also clear that the receiving State’s obligations persist even in case of armed conflict. But the point is that the Conventions are pragmatic agreements which recognise that, however bad things may be either within or between nations, the most important thing is that they should have a clear, trusted and reliable channel of communication with each other (the German word ‘Botschafter’, incidentally, means both ‘ambassador’ and ‘messenger’). 

I sincerely hope that the sad events in Benghazi reflect chaos, not intent, on the part of the Libyan authorities – and that their US counterparts have the forbearance and level-headedness not to react hastily or violently. The full title of a British ambassador is “Her Majesty’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary”… meaning that the ambassador has full power to act on behalf of the nation’s sovereign (as distinct from its government…). Just as sovereign rulers have learned that short-term imperatives are best tempered by the longer view, so a calm and measured reaction is called for in Tripoli and in Washington.