Mexico to Iran, why are attacks on embassies so controversial?

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Mexico and Ecuador are locked in a diplomatic spat after Ecuadorian police raided the Mexican embassy in Quito on Friday to arrest former Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas.

Glas had been seeking political asylum in the Mexican embassy since December and was convicted twice of corruption.

But the Ecuadorian police assault on the Mexican embassy was not the only attack on a diplomatic mission in recent days. On April 1, Iran’s consulate in the Syrian capital, Damascus, was destroyed in a suspected Israeli missile attack. Several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military advisers were present at the consulate when the attack took place, and seven were killed according to an IRGC statement.

These incidents have sparked a wave of condemnation that has gone beyond traditional allies of Mexico and Iran. So why is it that attacks on diplomatic missions are such a big deal, and how have Mexico and Iran reacted?

How have Mexico and Iran responded?

Following the attack on the embassy in Quito, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wrote in an X post that the incident constituted an “authoritarian act” and “a flagrant violation of international law and sovereignty of Mexico”.

Foreign Minister Alicia Barcena said on X that Mexican diplomatic personnel would immediately leave Ecuador. On Monday, Mexico said it planned to take the case against Ecuador to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Iran, meanwhile, has pledged a response to the attack on its mission in Damascus and is weighing its options.

In a statement, Nasser Kanani, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Iran “reserves the right to carry out a reaction and will decide on the type of response and the punishment of the aggressor”.

Hossein Akbari, the Iranian ambassador to Syria, said Tehran’s response would be “decisive”.

The options before Iran range from overt action against Israel such as unclaimed drone strikes to attacks on Israeli diplomatic facilities. After the Damascus incident, Israel temporarily shuttered 28 embassies globally as a precautionary measure.

Why are attacks on embassies such a big deal?

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations is an international treaty signed in 1963, governing consular relations between sovereign states. It was signed following a UN Conference on Consular Relations.

The Vienna Convention decrees that embassies are inviolable and local law enforcement agencies of host countries are not allowed to enter the premises. They can enter only with the consent of the head of the mission.

Under international law, embassies of countries are treated as their sovereign territories — not those of the country hosting them.

Diplomats also have diplomatic or consular immunity, which means they can be exempt from some of the laws of the host country and are protected from arrest or detention.

However, they can be declared persona non grata by the host country, which means the host country is allowed to send a foreign consular staff member back to the home country.

In effect, this means that the bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus was — under international law — at par with an attack on Iranian soil. The Ecuadorian police action in Quito, likewise, was tantamount to its officers entering Mexico to arrest someone without the Mexican government’s approval.

Times when embassies or consulates have sheltered dissidents

The decision by Mexico to offer refuge to Glas follows a centuries-old tradition when many embassies have sheltered dissidents or political asylum seekers who fear arrest, violence or even death in their own countries. Here are some prominent instances from recent decades.

  • In late March, the office of Argentina’s President Javier Milei announced that members of Venezuela’s opposition coalition had sought refuge in the Argentinian embassy in Caracas.
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was born in Australia, found asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London between 2012 and 2019 amid a legal battle with British and US authorities. He entered the embassy after a London court ordered Assange to be extradited to Sweden over rape allegations and his appeal was rejected. Ecuador revoked his asylum in 2019.
  • Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed sought shelter at the Indian High Commission in Male amid reports of threats to his life after a court issued an arrest warrant. He finally left after India brokered a deal for his freedom.
  • Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng fled from house arrest in 2012 and sought asylum at the United States embassy in Beijing.
  • Former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah sought shelter at the compound of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan after he was removed by armed groups in 1992. When the Taliban took over Kabul, they killed Najibullah in 1996 while he was still sheltering.
  • Erich Honecker, the former leader of East Germany was indicted in Germany for the deaths of East Germans who tried to cross the Berlin Wall. In 1991, he sought refuge in the Chilean embassy in Moscow.

Times when embassies or consulates have been attacked

Despite protections under international law, diplomatic missions have often come under attack — though usually not from host governments directly. Here are some instances from recent decades.

  • In September 2023, an assailant attacked the Cuban embassy in the US capital of Washington, DC with two Molotov cocktails, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla announced on social media.
  • In July 2023, protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in Baghdad over what was supposed to be the second burning of a Quran in front of the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm. Shortly after this, Iraq expelled Sweden’s ambassador.
  • In September 2022, a suicide bombing took place near the entrance of the Russian embassy in Kabul. Two of the six casualties were employees of the embassy.
  • In July 2021, the Cuban embassy in Paris was attacked with petrol bombs, causing serious damage but no injuries.
  • In 2012, the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked, killing the US ambassador and three others.
  • A suicide car bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul killed 58 people in July 2008, injuring more than 140 others.
  • On August 7, 1998, the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam were attacked in truck bombings that killed more than 220 people.

Source: Al Jazeera