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Experts Say Iraq’s Actions Against Embassies Violate International Law

August 24, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Iraq is violating international laws on the rights of diplomats that date to biblical times and are considered basic to relations between nations, legal experts said Friday.

Iraq’s attempt to close the embassies in occupied Kuwait has ″simply no legal authority,″ said international lawyer David Scheffer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The detention of 100 American diplomats and dependents trying to leave Kuwait by way of Baghdad is an even more blatant rejection of international norms, legalists said.

″You don’t interfere with the freedom of mobility of diplomats,″ said David Koplow, law professor at Georgetown Law School. ″That’s one of the fundamental principles.″

Iraq is a signatory to both the 1961 and 1963 Vienna conventions on diplomatic relations and consular affairs, agreements that explicitly spell out such areas as diplomatic immunity and the extraterritoriality of embassies.

Those conventions say a nation cannot arbitrarily close the diplomatic mission of another country unless it first breaks relations with that country. It may not expel diplomats unless it declares them ″persona non grata.″ Iraq has done neither.

David Steigman, assistant dean in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said Iraq may claim that the embassies must go because Kuwait no longer exists, but ″in eyes of the world there is still an independent Kuwait.″

The principle of diplomatic immunity - under which diplomats have freedom of movement and are free from arrest or taxation - has its roots in biblical times.

King Hanun of the Ammonites, who lived not far from present-day Iraq, accused King David’s envoys of spying, shaved off half their beards and stripped them. David was so incensed by this diplomatic impropriety that he went to war.

The formal laws of diplomacy began to evolve with the establishment of the first permanent diplomatic missions in the Italian city-states of the 15th century, and were codified in the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

Scheffer said Iraq, by detaining American civilians and diplomats, also has broken a commerce and navigation treaty with the United States that guarantees the safe transit of people and goods through the countries, and the 1949 Geneva Convention protecting civilians during wartime.

If Iraq declared war on the United States - which it has not - it would have the right under the Geneva Convention to intern American citizens in the interests of national security.

The United States interned German and Japanese nationals during World War II, and even restricted the movements of diplomats until exchanges for American diplomats could be arranged.

But the Geneva Convention also states explicitly that hostile nationals may not be used as shields to protect military installations. Iraq has begun moving Westerners to facilities that would be targeted in a military attack on the country.

There are precedents for closing embassies in an occupied country. The Soviet Union shut down the embassies in Lithuania and other Baltic states after taking over those countries in 1939 and 1940.

Foreign missions closed their doors days after Nazi Germany’s 1938 invasion of Austria.

″We still feel today this was a grave mistake,″ said Philipp Hoyos, charge d’affaires of the Austrian Embassy in Washington. ″We had the impression no one was interested in our independence. It’s something we resent.″

There has also been the occasional takeover of embassies, the best-known being the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979 and the holding of 52 American hostages for 444 days.

U.S. troops forced their way into the residence of the ambassador of Nicaragua during the U.S. invasion of Panama in December. President Bush said that violation was a ″screw-up.″

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