Russian Response: a Tit for Tat

By Sean Assad

In response to the prospect of increased economic sanctions from the US, Russia has ordered the US to cut their diplomatic staff by 755. In addition, Russia has said that it will block access to two American diplomatic properties: a warehouse in Moscow and a bucolic picnic ground along the Moscow River. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is as the US had seized two of Russia’s diplomatic properties in the US last year and 35 Russian diplomats to leave the US. Although, a big difference is that the properties the US seized were used for intelligence gathering, while the properties Russia is threatening to seize are merely recreational. The latest moves in response to the sanctions allows for a discussion to be had on the concept of state sovereignty, diplomatic immunity, and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961.

While the lay person may not fully grasp the entirety of international law, the idea of sovereignty and immunity are not so foreign of terms. There is no question that Russia can do what it pleases within its territory, and the same goes for the US, due to state sovereignty. State sovereignty is the concept that states are in complete and exclusive control of all the people and property within their territory. The modern world has steadily cut into this concept with the increase use of international treaties. For example, now states no longer view the treatment of citizens of one state as only the exclusive concern of that state because international human rights law is based on the idea that the entire global community is responsible for the rights of every individual. International treaties and countries signing International Conventions invariably involve sovereign states allowing some element of sovereignty to be compromised.

The Vienna Convention defines a framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries, which forms the legal basis for diplomatic immunity. Article 9 of the Vienna Convention allows the host nation at any time and for any reason to demand any number of diplomatic staff to leave. The location of the embassy and its properties are considered inviolable under Article 22 and that the premises shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution. This diplomatic immunity is a form of legal immunity that ensures diplomats, and by extension the property of the visiting nation, are given safe passage and are considered not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under the host country’s laws, but they can still be expelled. What is important to note, however, is that the Vienna Convention establishes the idea of immunity but the visiting nation’s premises are not considered sovereign extensions of the visiting country. Those properties are only allowed because the host nation has allowed it to be so but they still exercise sovereign control over the property within their territory. Russia’s seizure of the US diplomatic properties and the request for 755 diplomatic staff to leave are both permitted under the Vienna Convention and an extension of Russia’s sovereignty. As tensions continue to rise, there are questions as to how US and Russian relations could be improved especially with the shared interests of fighting ISIS and dealing with Kim Jong Un. International treaties and agreements, such as the Vienna Convention, are useful in facilitating international cooperation upon nations but it is still to the determination of those sovereign nations as to whether they will indeed cooperate.

References

Neil MacFarquhar, Putin, Responding to Sanctions, Orders U.S. to Cut Diplomatic Staff by 755, N.Y. TIMES (July 30, 2017), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/30/world/europe/russia-sanctions-us-diplomats-expelled.html (last visited July 30, 2017).

Rachel Roberts and Andrew Buncombe, Vladimir Putin expels 755 US diplomats from Russia in tit-for-tat move, THE INDEPENDENT (July 30, 2017), available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/vladimir-putin-donald-trump-sanctions-russia-usa-crimea-diplomats-expelled-moscow-a7868096.html (last visited July 30, 2017).

Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Apr. 8, 1961, 23 U.S.T. 3227, 500 U.N.T.S. 95.

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