Explainer: What is the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and How Does it Relate to the Mexico-Ecuador Incident? Features
Explainer: What is the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and How Does it Relate to the Mexico-Ecuador Incident?

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 stands as a cornerstone treaty in the realm of international law, delineating the structure for diplomatic interactions between sovereign states. This pivotal agreement secures the rights and protections of diplomatic missions, granting diplomats the freedom to execute their duties without hindrance or intimidation from the host nation. Ratified on April 18, 1961, and officially enforced on April 24, 1964, this convention has garnered widespread approval, with 193 nations ratifying its terms, underscoring its paramount role in nurturing cordial international relations.

The convention codifies longstanding customs and practices of diplomatic interactions, providing a comprehensive set of guidelines for the conduct of diplomacy. It has been instrumental in facilitating peaceful international relations, providing a blueprint for communication and interaction among states.

While the primary goal of diplomatic relations is to uphold communication channels even amid disagreements, certain crises or actions have been deemed so grave that countries opt to either temporarily or permanently cease diplomatic representation as we’ve seen in recent days with escalations between Mexico and Ecuador.

In a brazen disregard for international diplomatic norms, the Mexican embassy in Quito, Ecuador, became the focal point of a diplomatic crisis on April 5, 2024, when Ecuadorian police and military forces stormed the premises to arrest former Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas. This intrusive act not only violated the sanctity of the embassy but also flouted the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1954 Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum, provoking Mexico to suspend diplomatic ties with Ecuador and sparking a cascade of diplomatic responses from nations worldwide.

Many states have indicated their concerns with Ecuador’s apparent breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by entering a foreign state’s diplomatic premises without permission. Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena responded to the controversy by saying, “The recent events in Mexico have underpinned the need for this treaty. Mexico will appeal to the International Court of Justice to denounce Ecuador’s responsibility for violations of international law”. But what is the treaty? What does it do? And how was it breached in the case of Mexico and Ecuador?

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations: Core Provisions

The convention sets forth several key provisions aimed at ensuring the effective conduct of diplomatic affairs, including the inviolability of diplomatic premises as set out by Article 22, which states that the premises of the embassy are inviolable and the agents of the host country cannot enter them without the consent of the head of the mission. Other key provisions of the convention include:

  • Personal Inviolability: Article 29 provides diplomats immunity from arrest or detention, and their private residences are also protected under Article 30.
  • Immunity from prosecution: Article 31 provides diplomats with immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the host state. They are also accorded varying degrees of immunity from the civil and administrative jurisdiction of the host country.
  • Freedom of Movement: The host nation must ensure freedom of movement and travel in its territory for diplomats under Article 26.
  • Diplomatic Bag: Article 27 allows the diplomatic mission to send and receive documents and necessary materials without being opened or inspected by the host country.

Use of Persona Non Grata (PNG):

The expulsion of ambassadors is a severe diplomatic measure but within the rights of sovereign countries if they believe the Vienna Convention has been contravened or in response to serious bilateral tensions.  The declaration of persona non grata (Article 9) is a mechanism frequently employed in diplomatic disputes. Specific instances where ambassadors or other diplomatic agents have been declared persona non grata are often the result of bilateral tensions or breaches of the conduct expected under the convention. High-profile cases often make it to public knowledge, typically in the context of espionage, interference in domestic affairs, or other diplomatic indiscretions.

Background of and Application to the Mexico-Ecuador Incident

The background to the Mexico-Ecuador controversy traces back to December 2023 when Jorge Glas, seeking refuge from alleged political persecution, sought asylum in the Mexican embassy. Having previously been convicted on corruption charges, including bribery and illicit association, Glas found himself at the center of a political storm. The situation escalated when Mexico granted him political asylum, enraging Ecuador and setting the stage for a diplomatic showdown.

The incident involving Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican embassy in Quito, and the arrest of Glas, can be viewed through the lens of several provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. For example, the forcible entry into the Mexican embassy by Ecuadorian police directly contravenes the inviolability of diplomatic premises established by the convention. Additionally, the arrest of Jorge Glas within the embassy, if he was under the protection of the Mexican diplomatic mission, also raises serious questions about the violation of personal inviolability and immunity protections afforded to individuals on diplomatic premises.

In the context of the recent incident involving Mexico and Ecuador, where there was a breach of diplomatic norms, the key provisions of the Vienna Convention were violated. The forcible entry into the Mexican embassy and the arrest of an individual within the diplomatic premises go against the inviolability and immunity protections outlined in the Convention. Mexico’s decision to suspend diplomatic ties highlights the seriousness of the breach and the importance of upholding diplomatic norms for international cooperation.

Unfolding Aftermath of the Crisis: Diplomatic Responses

In the aftermath of the raid on the embassy and the apprehension of Glas, a wave of international condemnation rippled across the globe.  Countries such as Canada, Chile, Colombia, and many others swiftly denounced Ecuador’s breach of the Vienna Convention. They emphasized the grave importance of adhering to established diplomatic protocols, respecting the inviolability of diplomatic missions, and ensuring the safety of diplomatic personnel—a sentiment echoed by various international bodies and organizations.

Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Worship decried the attack, calling for full adherence to diplomatic asylum and relations conventions. The Bahamas, through Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, condemned the raid and urged respect for international law and the Vienna Convention. Bolivia expressed solidarity with Mexico, while Brazil underscored the need to repudiate Ecuador’s actions as a dangerous precedent.

Other reactions poured in from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Panama (in a joint communiqué) as well as Cuba, Guatemala, and Honduras.  Nicaragua went further, severing its diplomatic relations with the Ecuadorian government and expressing support and solidarity with Mexico. The UK, the US, and the Organization of American States also joined the chorus of condemnation, urging diplomacy and adherence to established norms.

The UN, through spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, echoed concerns over the incident, emphasizing the inviolability of diplomatic premises and calling for a peaceful resolution between Mexico and Ecuador. With the international community standing unified in its criticism, the incident at the Mexican embassy serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of diplomatic relations and the essential need to uphold the principles of international law, diplomacy and the treaties which bind our international obligations.