The pitfalls of co-locating diplomatic premises

Published: 20 July 2021 Authors: Stefan Talmon and William Heylen

Germany maintains 228 missions abroad, including 153 embassies, 54 consulates-general and seven consulates. In recent years, Germany has adopted the practice of co-locating diplomatic and consular missions with other European countries and the European Union. The sharing of embassy and consular premises allows countries to save costs and achieve synergies and, in the case of EU member States, promote the concept of a unified European voice on matters of foreign and security policy. In order to further mission co-location projects, the EU Member States and the European Commission signed a General Memorandum of Understanding on the Co-location of Diplomatic and Consular Missions. Germany shares embassy premises with other States and the EU delegation in Nigeria, South Sudan and Tanzania and the consulate in Gaziantep in Turkey.

In 2002, Umoja House opened in Hamburg Avenue, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The building houses the embassies of Germany and the Netherlands, the British High Commission, and the Delegation of the European Union to Tanzania. It was the first time that several European diplomatic missions were located in the same building. The arrangement was heralded at the time as “Four Euro Partners under One Roof”. Not only were the four missions located under one roof, but the building was also jointly owned by the four European partners. The four missions do not only share the same building; they also have a common entrance and security.

On 28 October 2020, presidential elections were held in Tanzania. President John Magufuli won re-election with a landslide victory in a poll that the opposition described as fraudulent. Following calls by the opposition for public protests over the election’s outcome, some 40 opposition leaders were arrested during the night from 1 to 2 November 2020. Mr. Magufuli’s main rival, Tundu Lissu, claiming that he feared for his life, tried to seek refuge in one of the diplomatic missions in Dar es Salaam.

On the morning of 2 November 2020, Mr. Lissu texted the German deputy ambassador saying that he was on the run and that he was making his way to the embassy looking for a place of temporary refuge and to negotiate safe passage out of the country. When he arrived at the embassy, however, he was not let in. He was told that he could not be admitted without the other three missions agreeing. The other missions had to get approval from their capitals but were unable to do so in such a short period of time. While Mr. Lissu was waiting in his car in front of Umoja House speaking on the phone to the German deputy ambassador he was arrested by the police. Three German diplomats followed Mr. Lissu to the Central Police Station where he was interrogated and released after about an hour. Upon his release, the German diplomats escorted Mr. Lissu to the residence of the German Ambassador to Tanzania where he spent the next eight days before he was able to safely leave the country for Belgium.

In the media, the German ambassador to Tanzania, Regine Heß, was accused of having put the life of Mr. Lissu at risk by denying him entry to the embassy. She responded to the accusation by saying:

“We did not turn him away. However, we had to coordinate with the other embassies in the building which took some time. Had we opened the door straight away, everything might have been much more dramatic.”

The incident shows one of the drawbacks of co-location of diplomatic premises. According to Article 22(1) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), the “premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” This inviolability allows sending States to provide temporary refuge to persons whose life and limb is in danger. In the case of several sending States sharing the same embassy building, each individual sending State is no longer solely in charge of the building and the head of the mission of each sending State can no longer exercise the rights of a head of mission alone with regard to the building. In the present case, the other sending States may not only have taken “some time” to reach a decision but may also have decided against offering Mr. Lissu temporary refuge in Umoja House. This may explain why, in the end, he was offered shelter in the German ambassador’s residence.

The protection offered to Mr. Lissu in the German ambassador’s residence was, however, as good as in the embassy itself. According to Article 1(i) VCDR the expression “premises of the mission” includes “the residence of the head of the mission”, even if the latter is physically or geographically separated from the mission’s office building. The residence of the German ambassador thus partakes in the inviolability of the premises of the mission. One lesson to be learned from this incident is that in the case of co-location of diplomatic missions it is advisable to seek refuge straight away in the residence of the head of mission or the private residence of a diplomatic agent of a sympathetic sending State, rather than to cause a diplomatic imbroglio between the sending States sharing the same embassy building.

Category: Diplomatic and consular relations

DOI: 10.17176/20220627-172806-0

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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.

  • William Heylen

    William Heylen is a student at Oxford University, studying Jurisprudence with Law in Germany. He spent an Erasmus year at the University of Bonn.

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