Diplomatic correspondent for BBC News James Landale asks if diplomats today face a greater threat than their predecessors despite the protections granted them by the Vienna Convention
It is the evening of 12 January 2016. All is quiet at the Italian Ambassador’s residence. The grand, porticoed building stands proud in the square, the flags flying fiercely in the stiff north westerly breeze. Then suddenly the streets echo with the sound of six shots being fired at the windows.
Two days later the Ambassador and other staff receive emails asking them “to leave now safely” or risk further violence. A police investigation ensues and the perpetrator is arrested and imprisoned. It turns out he has a longstanding grievance against the Italian authorities. Within a few months he is released and more threatening emails are received. Then in the early hours of 8 May, the same man is arrested again this time for damaging the Ambassador’s car ‘with a sharp object,’ trying to set fire to another Embassy vehicle, and stacking flammable material against the Residence front door.
To diplomats the world over, this might seem a common experience, the warp and weft of life in insecure capitals where their presence is not always welcome. Think Tripoli or Baghdad, Kabul or Caracas.
Yet this incident took place not in some vulnerable failing state but in Britain, in Grosvenor Square in London, one of the smartest and most secure squares in the capital that also houses the highly protected US Embassy. And the target was Pasquale Terracciano, the popular and outgoing Italian Ambassador, a well-known figure on the London diplomatic scene.
Proof, if ever it were needed, that diplomacy involves risk wherever it is practised. And it has always been thus. The Greek storyteller Aesop went on a diplomatic mission on behalf of King Croesus of Lydia and somehow insulted the Delphians who threw him off a cliff to his death. In his book Naked Diplomacy, Tom Fletcher, the former UK Ambassador to Beirut, tells of how a Chinese diplomat in 208BC was slowly sliced to death by “the methodical removal of 999 body parts in random order as drawn from a hat” after he failed his emperor in a key piece of statecraft.
But do diplomats face a greater threat today than their predecessors despite the protections granted them by the Vienna Convention? It is easy to reach that conclusion.
One thinks of the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey in December 2016, gunned down by an off-duty Turkish police officer at an art exhibition in Ankara. Or Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, who was killed in Benghazi in 2012 when mortar and rocket fire struck the US mission.
One thinks of the 24 US diplomats and foreign service officials in Cuba who have suffered permanent hearing loss, balancing problems, difficulty sleeping and a host of other conditions caused by alleged ‘sonic’ attacks earlier this year. The Cuban government has denied responsibility and is conducting an investigation. But such was the perceived threat that the US ordered all non-essential personnel and diplomats’ families to leave the island.
More mundanely, one hears of the low-level intimidation experienced by Western diplomats in Russia. One envoy told me that he came home one day to discover that his fridge magnets had been re-arranged to spell FSB, the Russian security service. Another told of how a colleague returned to discover her cat frozen to death outside her apartment door after it had been deliberately let out into the Moscow snow.
And one sympathises with the sheer mortality of the Russian diplomats who have died suddenly in the last year, including their Ambassadors to Sudan, Turkey, United Nations, and India, along with various foreign ministry officials. Some have died violently, but others more probably as a result of seniority and stress, a result – some speculate – of Moscow’s decision to raise foreign service retirement age to 65.
But the truth is that diplomats have always been targets. I can remember hearing about the assassination in 1979 of Richard Sykes, the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, at the hands of the IRA. A few years earlier the same organisation murdered Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the UK envoy to Dublin. It was only in June 2000 that Brigadier Stephen Saunders, the UK Military Attaché in Athens, was shot dead by two members of the Greek terror group, November 17. In 1987, Edward Chaplin, the British deputy head of mission in Iran, was beaten up and briefly detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in retaliation for the arrest of an Iranian consular official in Manchester for shoplifting charges.
Diplomats from most countries can tell similar stories about their own colleagues.
But these are individual cases of murder, violence and intimidation. There have also been what can be described as collective acts of war where whole groups of diplomats have been targeted. One thinks of the 1983 suicide attack on the US embassy in Beirut when a truck bomb exploded killing 63 people, mostly Embassy and CIA staff members. And of course, there was the extraordinary seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students in 1979, leading to the longest hostage crisis in recorded history when 52 US diplomats and citizens were held for 444 days.
The dilemma is obvious. Diplomats have to be protected. Many live in highly secure compounds and travel only with teams of bodyguards in heavily armoured vehicles. And not only in fragile states. I know one British Ambassador to a major European nation who has personal security officers with them all the time. Yet if diplomats hide behind a high wall or a stocky bouncer, they cannot do their jobs. They cannot get out to see the people they need to meet, whether the senior politician or the citizen on the street. Diplomacy cannot be done just from within the secure hotel or ministry. It needs envoys to walk the streets and smell the air. I know of one ambassador living under extreme constraint in a totalitarian state who learns what is going on by standing in shopping queues and eavesdropping on conversations.
So, the simple truth is that while there is a balance to be struck, diplomacy must by definition involve some risk.
Every year at the Foreign Office there is a simple ceremony to recognise the risk that Britain’s diplomats take on behalf of their country. Around the time of Armistice Day, staff at King Charles Street gather at the bottom of the Grand Staircase to remember colleagues who have lost their lives while in post. Friends and families come too. The FCO choir sing a requiem. The Foreign Secretary and the Permanent Secretary say a few words. The names of the fallen are read out, 19 in total, 14 of whom died this century. And there is a moment of silence.
A brief reminder that diplomacy does not just require patience, cunning and a capacity to absorb alcohol. It can also require courage.