A diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to spy for his country

The practice of diplomatic expulsion, as well as expulsion of other foreign personnel by an executive, has been receiving a lot of attention these days. Diplomats around the world are granted immunity in their host country – meaning they cannot be prosecuted there. The Vienna Convention of 1961 serves to codify what had been international norms for centuries. It is an attempt to convert these observed behaviours and accepted norms into international law. However, the diplomats right to stay in the host country can be withdrawn if they break the law, upset the host nation – or in the event of a diplomatic crisis.

During the Cold War, diplomatic expulsion, much like wars, were proxy moves between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s, however, a different pattern has emerged. Expulsion of diplomats, ambassadors or personnel for criminal or political reasons is something that is understandable and does not bring too much attention. What is strikingly prevalent in the diplomatic expulsions today is the level of espionage associated with these cases. Because states often give reasons for expulsions, it is possible to distinguish cases involving allegations of espionage from other types of expulsions.

Sending intelligence operatives abroad under diplomatic cover is an unspoken, but widespread practice in the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage between countries. Espionage, while murky, potentially distasteful and often illegal, is an accepted international practice. All countries spy and most (if not all) send spies overseas disguised as diplomats, because diplomats thanks to their position in the host country have a unique opportunity to roam free and be included in the top echelons of the society, which means they have broad access and of course, diplomatic immunity.

When one country posts intelligence officers in a friendly country, it informs the host country who they are. Those officers, while publicly still claiming to be diplomats, act as liaison officer and facilitate the intelligence sharing between the intelligence services of the two countries. But, with countries that are adversaries or have hostile relations, the governments don’t tell each other who the intelligence officers are, and they usually work under a disguised identity, and hold various positions in the embassy.  So, when this is the case, a high-stakes game of spy-hunting inevitably takes place between the host’s counterintelligence service and the undercover intelligence officer, operating under diplomatic cover. So, what happens when espionage activities are detected, and they include the diplomat in question? 

Usually, if the host country has hard evidence of espionage, it takes measures to expel the diplomat for violating privileges and immunities. We have abundance of such cases in the last few months. Just over a week ago, on August 24th, Austria’s foreign ministry said the country would expel a Russian diplomat for alleged illicit activities, including an Austrian employee at a technology company who confessed to spying on behalf of the Russian diplomat, who was his point of contact. 

Just a week before that, Norway’s Foreign Ministry expelled a Russian diplomat linked to the case of a man jailed on accusations of spying for Russia. In June, the Indian government announced that two Pakistani embassy officials have been detained for “indulging in espionage activities” and given 24 hours to leave the country. A few months ago, two Chinese diplomats were secretly kicked out of the US after driving onto a sensitive military base in Virginia that is home to Special Operations forces — after they were chased by military personnel.

Although no international convention requires executives to notify the public of the expulsion of a diplomat, ambassador or other personnel, it has been observed that executives do make highly publicised announcements in some cases, which suggests that expulsions have some domestic political value to some executives. But what the majority of these cases (and many others) suggest, is that the good old art of espionage is still here and not going away anytime soon.

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