Published: 14 January 2020 Author: Stefan Talmon
Amid heightened military tensions between Iran and the United States, Iranian air defences on 8 January 2020 accidentally shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) which had taken off from Tehran International Airport, killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board.
In the evening of 11 January 2020, Rob Macaire, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Iran, attended an event at Amir Kabir University in Tehran advertised as a vigil for the victims of the PS752 tragedy. When the vigil turned into an anti-government protest, the ambassador, according to his own account, left the scene. Half an hour after leaving, at around 7.10pm, on his way back to the British embassy, he was arrested by Iranian security forces on suspicion of organising, provoking and directing radical actions in front of Amir Kabir University.
The ambassador was held for three hours before being released. An Iranian official stated:
“The British ambassador was detained in accordance with the law for being illegally present (in the protest) in violation of diplomatic norms and while he was acting against the country’s security.”
The British Government condemned the arrest as “a flagrant violation of international law” and summoned the Iranian ambassador to London to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to demand an apology and seek full assurances that this will not happen again.
On 12 January 2020, the German Federal Foreign Office expressed its support for the British position, tweeting:
“Temporary detention of the UK Ambassador to Tehran by Iranian security forces is a completely unacceptable violation of international law. We strongly condemn this action. Compliance with the most elementary rules of international conduct is in the interest of all.”
Chancellor Merkel also condemned Iran’s arrest of the UK Ambassador to Tehran as a violation of international law.
Iran defended the arrest of the British ambassador. The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs tweeted on 12 January 2020:
“He wasn’t detained, but arrested as unknown foreigner in an illegal gathering. When police informed me a man’s arrested who claims to be UK Amb, I said IMPOSSIBLE! only after my phone conversation w him I identified, out of big surprise, that it’s him. 15 min later he was free.”
On 13 January 2020, the British ambassador was summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry “over his unconventional behaviour and attendance at illegal rallies in Tehran.” He was reminded that the presence of foreign ambassadors in unlawful gatherings went against their responsibilities as a political representative of their country and it violated the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. On 14 January 2020, Iran’s Judiciary Spokesman stated:
“It is true that the Vienna Convention, in its explanation of diplomatic rights, grants immunity to foreign diplomats in host countries. We also respect this immunity but the same Convention states in Article 41 that all persons enjoying diplomatic privileges and immunities are obliged to respect the laws and regulations of the host countries and refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the countries.”
“It is not acceptable for us to see that the British ambassador went outside the embassy and took part in an illegal gathering, filmed it and had a provocative role in its continuation.”
On the same day, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement once again condemning the British ambassador’s attendance at a local gathering in Tehran as a blatant interference in the internal affairs of Iran and as being in contravention of the principles of diplomatic relations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also called on the embassy of the United Kingdom in Tehran to stop any meddling and provocative measure immediately, and warned that if such behaviour continued, the Foreign Ministry would not be satisfied with summoning the ambassador anymore.
The conduct of the Iranian authorities raised serious questions of international law. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), to which both Iran and the United Kingdom are a party, expressly provides in Article 29:
“The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.”
This is the oldest established rule of diplomatic law, which protects diplomatic agents even if they engage in illegal activities directed against the receiving State. Thus, even if the British ambassador had attended an illegal anti-government protest and even if he had organized such a protest, the Iranian authorities would not have been allowed to arrest or detain him. The only lawful sanction would have been to declare him persona non grata.
A brief period of detention of a diplomatic agent may be admissible in exceptional circumstances in order to establish the identity and diplomatic status of a person. This may explain the statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry that “Macaire was arrested on Saturday night for attending an illegal gathering but was released because of his diplomatic immunity after being identified.” This explanation, however, seems to be contradicted by an earlier statement by the security forces that the “British ambassador was detained in accordance with the law for being illegally present (in the protest) in violation of diplomatic norms.” In any case, holding the ambassador for three hours clearly infringed his inviolability under Article 29 of the VCDR. As made clear in the German statement, such an infringement is of concern to the entire international community.
Category: Diplomatic and consular relations