Largely unreported by the media in the Caribbean and making no headlines, a very serious blow was delivered to diplomacy and international relations on Sunday, 24 April.
The Government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua sent Police to enter the diplomatic premises of the Organisation of American States (OAS) forcibly, and to confiscate its documents and other property.
This may appear to be of no concern to the people of Caribbean countries, particularly persons who are not involved in government. But the act strikes at the heart of a long-established norm of relations between States and inter-governmental institutions. It could have undesirable and serious consequences for small countries if its passes unchecked.
The norm is that States accept embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions on the basis that they are ‘inviolable’ which means that no agent of the receiving State may enter them, except without the consent of the head of the mission.
This norm is enshrined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which defines a framework for behaviour between independent countries and international institutions. The Convention facilitates friendly relations through a set of practices and principles that all States have accepted.
Very importantly, it codifies the longstanding custom of diplomatic immunity, in which diplomatic missions are granted privileges that enable diplomats to perform their functions without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country.
The Vienna Convention is a cornerstone of modern international relations and international law. Adherence to its provisions have been respected and upheld by States because governments understand and accept that diplomacy is fundamental to finding solutions even in war.
As the OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, told the member states of the organisation on April 25th after the Nicaragua Police seized the diplomatic premises and confiscated its property, “this has never happened before, even in times of the region’s worst dictatorships, including those experienced by Nicaragua. This is a violation of the most elementary norms governing relations between States and international organisations, setting a precedent hitherto unheard of in the region”.
What makes the action of the Nicaragua government even worse is that the OAS is a collective of all its member states. Therefore, its diplomatic premises belong to all of them, including the 14 independent countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
This fact could not have been overlooked by the government of Nicaragua when its police force illegally entered the premises, occupied it and seized the property within it.
It is worth noting that the Vienna Convention makes it absolutely clear that, along with the premises of missions being inviolable, the receiving state is under a special duty to take all appropriate measures to protect the premises of the mission and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.
The Article also states that the premises of the mission and its property shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment, or execution. It is this norm – a bedrock of international relations – that the Government of Nicaragua has assaulted.
Worse yet, beyond disregarding the Vienna Convention, the OAS and the Government of Nicaragua had a written agreement, signed in 1989, which recognises the privileges and immunities of the OAS mission, including the prohibition of any type of procedure, entry, search, seizure, or any other measure, without the consent of the Secretariat.
For small countries, such as those in CARICOM, the norm of inviolability of diplomatic premises is sacrosanct for two important reasons.
First, CARICOM countries want to welcome diplomatic missions to their countries, both for the international recognition that the presence of such missions signify, and the services that they provide. However, in light of the Nicaraguan action, governments and other international institutions might now reconsider the safety of their foreign missions and reduce them considerably.
Second, CARICOM countries presume the inviolability of their own missions in other States that the Vienna Convention accords to them. Therefore, they do not spend scarce financial resources on protecting their diplomatic premises, particularly from the host government. But after the egregious action of the Nicaragua government, inviolability can no longer be taken for granted. The Nicaragua government has cast a long-held norm of international relations into grave and serious doubt.
So, why did the Nicaragua government take this egregious action? It is discomfited that the Permanent Council of the OAS condemned its serious and persistent abuse of human rights, including the arbitrary arrest and jailing of political opponents; shutting down media criticism; and the use of lethal force by the Police against protestors resulting in hundreds of killings.
It should be noted that, amongst the persons that the Ortega government arbitrarily arrested and jailed, were his comrades in the revolutionary Sandinista government. One of them, Hugo Torres, died after being imprisoned with no access to his medication.
Nicaragua’s own Ambassador to the OAS, Arturo Macfields, dramatically denounced the abuses of the government in a live webcast of an OAS meeting. He accused the Ortega government of atrocities about which he “could not be silent”.
Nothing can justify the violation of an international norm that has long been accepted and respected by every government in the world. If the Nicaraguan government’s action is seen to be acceptable by the absence of a strong expression and display of disapproval by the OAS member states, other insecure regimes, such as that in Nicaragua, would be given a license for similar behaviour.
The system of international order, including the rules of diplomatic practice and international relations, would be weakened even more than it has been by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The world would be brought closer to the precipice of disregard for the norms and practices that have safeguarded peace and development for over seven decades. Small states would be the first to suffer, as usual. That’s why the Nicaraguan violation of a fundamental norm matters to small countries, and why it should not pass without a strong response.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto