Summoning or “inviting” an ambassador – is there a difference?

Published: 14 July 2020 Author: Stefan Talmon

Over the last few years, German-Russian relations have not been at their best. For example, in April/May 2015, the German Federal Parliament experienced a serious cyberattack during which 16 gigabytes of data, confidential documents and e-mails were stolen. The attack also affected the parliamentary office of Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Federal Prosecutor General launched an investigation on suspicion of espionage against Germany on behalf of the intelligence service of a foreign power which on 29 April 2020 led the Investigating Magistrate of the Federal Court of Justice to issue an international arrest warrant for Russian national Dimitri Badin. There was credible evidence that the accused was working for the Russian military intelligence service GRU at the time of the cyberattack. During parliamentary question time on 13 May 2020, Chancellor Merkel implicated Russia in this “outrageous” cyberattack and accused the country of pursuing a “strategy of hybrid warfare, which includes warfare in connection with cyber disorientation and distortion of facts.”

During question time Chancellor Merkel also referred to another incident that strained German-Russian relations. On 23 August 2019, a Georgian national of Chechen descent was killed by a Russian national in broad daylight in Berlin’s Tiergarten park, and in December 2019 the Federal Prosecutor General took over the investigation amid suspicion of Russian State involvement in the “execution-style” killing. The Federal Prosecutor General’s finding of State involvement led the Federal Foreign Office to declare “two members of staff at the Russian Embassy in Berlin to be personae non gratae with immediate effect.” The indictment filed by the Federal Prosecutor General on 18 June 2020 contained the serious allegation that “State authorities of the central Government of the Russian Federation” had ordered the murder.

Both events resulted in the Russian ambassador to Berlin being “invited” for talks at the Federal Foreign Office. On 28 May 2020, a Federal Foreign Office spokesperson issued a statement which read in part:

“State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office Miguel Berger invited Sergey J. Nechajev, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation, to the Federal Foreign Office for talks today. On behalf of the Federal Government, Mr Berger condemned the hacker attack on the German Bundestag in the strongest possible terms.

The Russian Ambassador was informed, with reference to the arrest warrant issued by the Investigating Magistrate of the Federal Court of Justice at the request of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office on 29 April 2020 against Russian national Dmitri Badin, that the Federal Government will call in Brussels for the EU’s cyber sanctions regime to be invoked with respect to those responsible for the attack on the German Bundestag, including Mr Badin. […]

The Federal Government is assessing this incident also in the light of the ongoing investigation into the Tiergarten murder case and expressly reserves the right to take further measures.”

After the Federal Prosecutor General filed the indictment in the Tiergarten murder case, the Russian ambassador was “once again invited” for a meeting at the Federal Foreign Office to make the German “position unmistakably clear again to the Russian side.” On both occasions, it was widely reported in the media that the Russian ambassador had been “summoned” to the Federal Foreign Office.

During the regular government press conference on 29 May 2020, the spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office replied to the question of when a Russian ambassador had been summoned last:

“We did not use the word ‘summons’ in the press release. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations [VCDR] does not specify exactly what is or is not a summons. The Russian ambassador understood our request for talks and met with the State Secretary for talks.

We are not aware of any formal summoning of a Russian ambassador, at least not in recent years.

We have not used the word. We have invited him for talks.”

The VCDR does not contain any provisions on the summoning of ambassador. Summons is, however, a well-established practice of diplomatic relations. It is a formal way to communicate the receiving State’s views on matters of importance in no uncertain terms. It is used to express legal or political positions, expectations, concerns, outrage, or lack of understanding of the sending State’s behaviour; or to convey warnings, protests, demands, persona non grata declarations, or the severance of diplomatic relations – and to do so without using diplomatic pleasantries. Heads of mission are, as a rule, summoned to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and not to other government departments, the chancellery, or prime minister’s office. Heads of mission are usually summoned at the behest of the Foreign Minister of the receiving State. In terms of diplomatic protocol, summons are extended by Deputy Foreign Ministers, State Secretaries, and the directors of Foreign Ministry departments. Being summoned is part of the functions of the head of a diplomatic mission. However, it is the sovereign decision of the sending State how the functions of a head of mission are exercised. There is no obligation under international law to comply with a summons, but failure to do so may prompt the receiving State to declare the head of mission persona non grata.

Over the past decade, Germany has summoned the Chinese, Pakistani, Turkish ambassadors and – several times – the North Korean ambassador. In November 2013, in an extraordinary move, Federal Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, even summoned the ambassadors of two of Germany’s closest allies – the United Kingdom and the United States – over surveillance activities conducted out of their embassies in Berlin in order to send a “clear diplomatic signal”. For the last few years, however, Germany has no longer summoned foreign heads of mission, but rather “invited” them to talks at the Federal Foreign Office. This is not so much a change of substance as a change of style. There are several ways of conveying a message: informal talks, formal talks, summons, and publicly announced summons. The public announcement of the summoning of a head of mission by a Foreign Ministry usually indicates tension and a deterioration of relations between the receiving and the sending State. It is a way of delivering a message to the sending State that the receiving State “means business”. On the diplomatic ladder of escalation, the summoning of an ambassador is a step fairly low on the ladder – other, higher steps being the expulsion of members of the mission, persona non grata declarations of the head of mission, the temporary suspension of – and, ultimately, the severance of – diplomatic relations. More often than not the announcement is directed more at the receiving State’s own domestic audience than at the sending State. It is a way for the government of the receiving State to take a tough stance and to demonstrate action in the face of public outrage over the behaviour of the sending State. Inviting the Russian ambassador for talks rather than summoning him to the Federal Foreign Office allows the Federal Government to send its message to the Russian Government without putting further strain on German-Russian relations. While using a less posturing rhetoric and a pedestrian tone may be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the general public, it probably serves German interests better.

Category: Diplomatic and consular relations

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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