Mini Countries Abroad: How Embassies Work

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13:56   |   May 15, 2019


Mini Countries Abroad: How Embassies Work
Mini Countries Abroad: How Embassies Work thumb Mini Countries Abroad: How Embassies Work thumb Mini Countries Abroad: How Embassies Work thumb


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  • Embassies are the vessels through which diplomacy is conducted.
  • They are the physical manifestations of countries abroad are they are crucial tools in the field
  • of international relations.
  • These can range in size from tiny, like the UK embassy in Mongolia which only has a handful
  • of staff, to enormous, like the US embassy in Baghdad—a complex physically as large
  • as the Vatican City which reached a peak of 16,000 staff during the Iraq War.
  • Big, influential countries will have embassies to almost every other country—the US, for
  • example, has diplomatic missions to every UN recognized country in the world except
  • St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada,
  • Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Bhutan, and North Korea.
  • Smaller, less influential countries, on the other hand, might only have a few embassies—Tuvalu,
  • for example, only has diplomatic missions to New Zealand, Fiji, Taiwan, the European
  • Union in Belgium, and the United Nations in New York.
  • You see, there are embassies to non-state organizations—namely the UN and EU.
  • You can even have embassies to agencies of the UN—there’s one US diplomat in Rome
  • with the lengthy title of, “United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies
  • for Food and Agriculture.”
  • Even traditionally closed off countries like North Korea have representation abroad.
  • The DPRK has embassies in some quite western countries like Germany, Sweden, and the UK
  • and these three countries also each have embassies in North Korea.
  • Now, part of the way these embassies can exist in even the most different and opposing of
  • countries is because of how they are codified in international law.
  • Every UN member state except for South Sudan, Palau, and the Solomon Islands has signed
  • the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
  • This sets out a number of laws on how embassies work.
  • Perhaps the most significant and well known is Article 22—“The premises of the mission
  • shall be inviolable.”
  • Unless invited by the ambassador or their government, any representative of the host
  • country’s government—be it a police officer, government official, member of the military,
  • or even firefighter—cannot enter the embassy.
  • This, of course, is how Julian Assange stayed in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for seven
  • years.
  • He entered in 2012 when he was wanted in the UK for extradition to and subsequent arrest
  • in Sweden.
  • Assange stayed in the embassy while his request for Ecuadorian political asylum was reviewed
  • and, once it was granted, normally the next step would be to go to Ecuador.
  • Outside the embassy, though, waited British police and so he would therefore have been
  • arrested if he ever left.
  • In the end, though, after seven years inside, it was the British police that arrested Assange
  • as the Ecuadorians decided Assange had overstayed his welcome and invited the police inside.
  • The Vienna convention also lays out a few other important rules for embassies—the
  • diplomats and the embassy are exempt from all taxes in the host country; the diplomats
  • are allowed free movement around the host country; an embassy can have diplomatic couriers
  • carrying diplomatic bags which cannot be seized or searched; diplomats are granted diplomatic
  • immunity; the residences of diplomats are also treated as an extension of the embassy
  • and cannot be entered without permission; diplomats cannot work or earn a profit when
  • in their host country except for with the embassy; and then there are plenty of other
  • even more minor rules Now, one big misconception about embassies
  • is that this is an embassy.
  • It’s not, this is a chancery—the building in which an embassy is located.
  • The, “embassy” is not the building, its the group people that work inside the building.
  • It is the group of workers that represent the country abroad.
  • Another big misconception about embassy buildings are that they are the sovereign territory
  • of the country they represent.
  • This is not the case.
  • It is also not they case that embassy buildings are in a state of extraterritoriality—that
  • local laws don’t apply there as would be the case in the United Nation headquarters
  • or on many foreign military bases.
  • In the case of embassy buildings, it’s not that the laws of the host country don’t
  • apply there, it’s just that many of the people that make up the embassy, the diplomats,
  • cannot be prosecuted for violating those laws and those that enforce the law, the police,
  • can’t enter.
  • Now, diplomats almost always follow the rules of their host country as failing to do so
  • would be unproductive for the very nature of their job, but when they don’t, this
  • can have serious implications.
  • As an example, in April 1984, two students in Tripoli, Libya were hung for publicly opposing
  • Gaddafi.
  • In response, a protest was formed by a major political opposition group outside the Libyan
  • embassy in London.
  • On order from Gaddafi, an individual inside the embassy building fired into the crowd
  • with a machine gun, wounding eleven.
  • One of those wounded was Yvonne Fletcher, a young policewoman, who later died in the
  • hospital from her injuries.
  • Within 10 minutes of the shots going off, the embassy building was surrounded by British
  • police, blocking anyone from going in or out.
  • Once it had been confirmed through forensic autopsy that the shots did indeed come from
  • the embassy, negotiations began.
  • The British tried to get permission to enter the embassy building.
  • You see, only some, but not all of the 30 people in the building were diplomats meaning
  • that some, if they were found to have committed the crime, could be arrested for it.
  • The Libyans, however, would not grant access.
  • Therefore, after five days of surrounding the embassy, the British severed diplomatic
  • relations with Libya, giving them another week to leave the embassy and country.
  • This, you see, is what countries can do when diplomats misbehave.
  • They can’t go into the embassy building, they can’t arrest diplomats, but they can
  • kick them out of their country.
  • After this incident, diplomatic relations between the two countries didn’t normalize
  • for decades and, even today, in 2019, the case is still actively under investigation
  • and its quite possible an arrest could happen in the future.
  • Normally, though, embassies are more concerned with building diplomacy.
  • Typically, but not always, embassies are headed up by an ambassador.
  • Sometimes, though, there are lapses where one goes without an ambassador for a period
  • of time and other times, a country might choose to recall their ambassador as a sign of displeasure.
  • Now, the job of ambassador is tough to define.
  • In the simplest since, an Ambassador is there to represent their country but what that entails
  • varies wildly from person to person and post to post.
  • There’s often a perception that all that ambassadors do is schmooze and booze but,
  • to be honest, that’s part of the job.
  • They’re there to build and maintain relationships with those that can help their country—politically,
  • economically, or otherwise.
  • That’s just part of diplomacy which is what the embassy’s job as a whole is.
  • This can be direct diplomacy, where the ambassador might meet directly with a head of state,
  • or soft diplomacy.
  • Soft diplomacy can be things like China sending pandas to foreign zoos, the US funding scholarships
  • for foreign students, or France setting up a branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
  • They are more subtle ways that a nation can curry public favor with another.
  • On a smaller scale, embassies will often have a portion of staff dedicated to promoting
  • and exhibiting the art and culture of their country in the region.
  • You’ll often see embassies financially supporting and sponsoring concerts of their country’s
  • music, for example.
  • Now, in addition to these ways of representing one’s country, the embassy also represents
  • its homeland through its actual building.
  • As the public face of one country in another, it’s got to look the part.
  • For example, some of the world’s most impressive and important embassies are in Washington,
  • DC given that nearly every nation has a diplomatic mission there.
  • The Chinese embassy building was designed by the children of I.M. Pei, a Chinese-American
  • regarded as one of the world’s greatest architects, and evokes the same sense of clean,
  • contemporary grandeur and opulence common with the greatest buildings back in the People’s
  • Republic itself while still adhering to Feng Shui principles.
  • Just down the street there’s the embassy building of the United Arab Emirates—a perhaps
  • even more opulent structure clearly incorporating aspects of Islamic Architecture.
  • This building seems to purposefully command a presence with its open sightline from the
  • street allowing one to look in and up.
  • Then there’s this section of the British Embassy complex nearby—a structure resembling
  • an old English Country Manor.
  • While countries like China and UAE might be more focused on pushing their modern image
  • as newly wealthy nations, countries like the UK might draw more attention to their long
  • and storied past.
  • There’s then the whole realm of the architecture of American embassy complexes themselves.
  • With necessity, after countless attacks on its embassies through history, the architecture
  • and design of American embassy buildings evokes security.
  • Whether its the one in Berlin, Beijing, Bern, or Bangkok, they all have the look of a compound.
  • They’re mostly modern, innovative designs, a conscious choice to associate these values
  • to the nation’s image, but they’re still mostly hidden behind tall walls and fences.
  • There are still some, though, mostly in places where security is less of a concern, reflecting
  • the earlier architectural style of the US such as the Georgian House of the US Embassy
  • in Canberra, Australia—a building that would look right at place in the American south.
  • But when embassies are in certain places their buildings can’t just be compound-style.
  • They have to be compounds.
  • As the physical representations of countries, embassies are the clearest targets for those
  • wishing to send a message to a country.
  • During wars, though, there is often more work than ever for embassies to do in a country.
  • This is why, as mentioned earlier, the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, ballooned to over
  • 16,000 staff during the Iraq War.
  • The embassy building was built in the Green Zone—a highly fortified area along the Tigris
  • River in Baghdad.
  • This area, guarded by soldiers and walls more than nine feet or three meters tall, was and
  • still is home to much of the international presence in Baghdad.
  • That included embassies of countries like the US, UK, and Australia, but also some companies.
  • War is big business and the Green Zone was home to small field headquarters for many
  • large, international engineering, construction, and private military firms contracted to help
  • in the war.
  • That is to say, the Green Zone was primarily home to a large group of civilians working
  • in Iraq which is why it was so heavily guarded.
  • Given the security threat, the US embassy there was built to be entirely self sufficient.
  • It has its own generators, its own wells, its own water filtration plant, its own sewage
  • plant, its own fire station, it even has its own internet uplink to circumvent the Iraqi
  • network.
  • It has its own phone network—both wired and wireless—which both operate pretty much
  • as if they were in the US—they use the area codes of New York and Virginia.
  • Unlike in most cities where embassy staff just live in normal housing in the city, this
  • embassy has its own block of fortified apartments.
  • Even during the thick of the war, the embassy compound had its own swimming pool, tennis
  • courts, fitness center, department store, nail salon, and movie theatre.
  • Topping it off is a helicopter pad—used to get the ambassador and other top diplomats
  • around the country when they don’t want to confront the dangers of below.
  • The diplomats serving as part of the US embassy in Baghdad do get another perk in addition
  • to the pool and tennis courts and movie theatre and everything else—they get more money.
  • You see, when working in the US foreign service, and its often similar when working for other
  • countries’ foreign service, you essentially get more money the more foreign a place you
  • go.
  • If you’re serving pretty much anywhere in North America, Western Europe, Australasia,
  • and a few other assorted countries, you get no bonus.
  • If you serve in a place that has an extreme climate, poor quality of healthcare, high
  • crime, high pollution, or has any other factor that makes it more difficult to live there
  • as a foreigner, you get hardship pay which is a bonus that ranges anywhere from 5% to
  • 35%.
  • That 5% rate includes places like Costa Rica, the Bahamas, Malta, and Bulgaria while the
  • 35% rate is reserved for places like the Central African Republic, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq,
  • Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
  • That rate of hardship pay can also vary within a country.
  • For example, if you served at the US consulate in Dubai you’d only get a 5% bonus while
  • serving at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi would get you 10%.
  • There are also some places that, well, just don’t seem all that hard to live in but
  • do earn you hardship pay such as Ponta Delgada, Portugal, a well-known vacation destination.
  • This is likely only included because of its isolation.
  • On top of hardship pay, you can also get an additional bonus if you serve in a place that
  • is deemed dangerous.
  • For example, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, gets you 15% while places like Tripoli, Damascus, Kabul,
  • Baghdad, and Juba will get you a 35% bonus.
  • So, in a place like Baghdad, you get a 70% bonus just for the hardship and danger you
  • put yourself through.
  • This is how they get people to work at even the harshest of postings without forcing them.
  • On top of these two, there are also some other bonuses based off things like high cost of
  • living, difficulty in staffing the post, and more.
  • Now, in the modern age, some have questioned whether embassies still have a purpose.
  • 100 years ago they very much had a purpose as communication was difficult, travel was
  • slow, and countries therefore needed someone on the ground who could speak on their behalf
  • to others at a moment’s notice.
  • Nowadays, though, messages can be relayed instantaneously through a whole host of means
  • so what’s the point?
  • Well, ambassadors are not messengers.
  • Ambassadors are representatives.
  • They are there not only to work for their country within political systems, but also
  • to promote it to the public as to increase travel and trade with their country.
  • Many argue, in fact, that these small, personal relationships of our world’s diplomats tying
  • together countries of hundreds of millions or billions are more important now than ever.
  • If you want to work in the foreign service, the US State Department has an extensive reading
  • list of books that will help to get the knowledge you need no matter which country you’re
  • from.
  • One book on there that I found quite interesting was, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without
  • Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell.
  • The book is all about how the unconscious brain works in making decisions with very
  • limited info.
  • Blink, like so many other books, is available as an audiobook on Audible so you can listen
  • to it wherever and whenever.
  • I find that listening to books helps me fit in a lot more in and it helps make things
  • like cleaning or commuting a lot more fun.
  • Best of all, you can sign up for free at audible.com/wendover or text, “wendover” to 500-500 and download
  • Blink, or any other audiobook for free in addition to two Audible originals also for
  • free.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/world/middleeast/united-states-planning-to-slash-iraq-embassy-staff-by-half.html
[2] https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/countries-limited-visa-services.html
[3] https://www.un.int/tuvalu/tuvalu/embassies
[4] https://usunrome.usmission.gov/mission/mission-usun/ambassador/
[5] https://web.archive.org/web/20080726181824/http://www.sweden.gov.se/sb/d/3428/a/24515; https://www.eda.admin.ch/eda/en/home/representations-and-travel-advice/dpr-korea/dpr-korea-representation-in-ch.html; https://web.archive.org/web/20111027103411/http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/foreign-embassy-in-the-uk/korea-dpr-north-korea
[6] https://treaties.un.org/doc/Treaties/1964/06/19640624%2002-10%20AM/Ch_III_3p.pdf
[7] https://www.state.gov/discoverdiplomacy/diplomacy101/places/170537.htm
[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/15/julian-assange-ecuador-london-embassy-how-he-became-unwelcome-guest
[9] http://integrity-legal.com/legal-blog/miscellaneous/laws-and-rules-regarding-extraterritoriality/
[10] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4284446?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
[11] https://www.state.gov/discoverdiplomacy/diplomacy101/people/170341.htm
[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/28/world/asia/28iht-embassy.1.13269969.html
[13] https://www.citylab.com/equity/2012/09/fortress-america-how-us-designs-embassies/3289/
[14] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/11/langewiesche200711
[15] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/11/welcome-to-the-green-zone/303547/
[16] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/11/langewiesche200711
[17] https://aoprals.state.gov/Web920/hardship.asp
[18] https://aoprals.state.gov/Web920/danger_pay_all.asp