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Israel strike on Iranian Embassy: A grave threat to global diplomatic laws

April 9, 2024 at 8:10 pm

A picture shows a view of a new consular annex to Iran’s embassy in Damascus on its inauguration day on April 8, 2024 [LOUAI BESHARA / AFP]

In stark violation of international law, Israel has initiated an assault on the Iranian embassy in Syria. The ramifications of this act are profound, not only politically but also legally. This attack blatantly contravenes established norms of diplomatic immunity, a principle that has been a cornerstone of international law for centuries.

By undertaking this aggressive action, the Israeli leadership has demonstrated a blatant disregard for these global legal standards. However, such actions often lead to reciprocal consequences, and Israel may now face significant repercussions for this breach, potentially setting a precedent that could unravel long-standing international legal practices. In fact, shortly after, Ecuador’s raid on the Mexican embassy to arrest the ex-Vice President demonstrated the adverse consequences of this precedent sooner than anticipated.

Can targeting embassies and killing diplomats be justified?

On 1 April, Israeli warplanes carried out an attack in Syria, targeting a building within the Iranian Embassy complex. Four Israeli officials told the New York Times that the building did not have diplomatic status. In contrast, statements by both Iranian and Syrian officials and footage suggested otherwise. Besides the huge destruction of the building, the attack also resulted in the deaths of seven high-ranked officers, according to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The total death toll, as reported at the U.N. briefing, includes thirteen people — seven Iranian personnel and six Syrian citizens.

READ: Israeli air strike on Iranian consulate in Damascus condemned

This incident might seem like another breach of international norms, but it is a significant violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which ensures the inviolability of diplomatic agents and premises. Even in cases of suspected illegal activities, such as the 1984 St. James Square incident in London, in which a British police officer was shot by fire coming from the Libyan People’s Bureau in London, legal protocols must be followed, respecting the sanctity of diplomatic sites.

Despite legitimate concerns over terrorism, actions against diplomatic sites, like targeting Iran’s embassy, are seen as attacks on the host nation itself, setting a dangerous precedent against international law principles. The Convention also obligates sending states to refrain from illegal activities within embassy premises, with legal recourse available through international law for violations.

Israel’s justification for attacking an embassy, alleging illegal activities, does not exempt it from adhering to diplomatic inviolability. Arguments that the Vienna Convention does not apply to third-party states like Israel miss the point that diplomatic protection extends beyond international agreements to encompass customary international law, recognised through consistent state practice and the belief in legal duty (opinio juris). Instances, like the United States compensation for the 1999 Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade, underline this customary law, emphasising that Israel’s actions against diplomatic inviolability warrant careful scrutiny under international law.

Is self-defence a valid justification?

Irrespective of its diplomatic status, the Iranian embassy is considered Iranian territory under international law. Therefore, attacking the Iranian embassy is tantamount to attacking Iranian soil. In that, self-defence is not a legitimate justification. Yet, it is another example of how the invocation of the self-defence argument has become a convenient justification for wrongdoings, mostly to deceive those unfamiliar with international law. Narrowly read, the UN Charter allows for self-defence if an armed attack against a state occurs, until the UN Security Council takes measures. Not only that, but members also asserting the use of self-defence should report to the UN Security Council on the measures. None of those conditions are there to justify Israel’s actions as self-defence.

Another concept that Israel may resort to is anticipatory self-defence. Although not explicitly mentioned in the UN Charter, it is recognised as part of customary international law by many and, thus, it must be upheld and respected. However, even that concept has strict conditions. It permits self-defence only in cases where an imminent threat exists, and all other means of defence have been exhausted. The current incident fails to meet both these conditions.

READ: Iran vows revenge for Israel strike on embassy in Syria, as US insists it was not involved

Is attacking embassies legal?

The Iranian embassy is more than a diplomatic premise; it is a civilian infrastructure. Under international laws, attacks on civilian entities are prohibited. However, if they contribute to military action and offer a clear advantage if destroyed, captured or neutralised, they are classified as a military objective.

The Israeli attack on Iran’s embassy needs to be examined systematically. Firstly, if the embassy is considered a civilian objective, this attack is already a clear violation of international law. However, if there is a claim that the embassy premises are used for military purposes and are, thus, a military objective, this claim must be beyond doubt. Therefore, if there is any uncertainty about whether it is a civilian or military objective, the embassy building should be considered a civilian objective. The not-so-friendly relations between Iran and Israel and past incidents are not a direct presumption that the embassy is a military objective and, therefore, Israel’s claim that the embassy is a legitimate military target should be viewed with scepticism.

Even if the embassy is unequivocally established as a military objective, attacks on military targets must be proportionate. The proportionality rule prohibits attacks that cause excessive civilian harm relative to the expected military advantage, even when the target is a military objective.

If civilian casualties are involved, as stated in the UN briefing, it is apparent that this attack is disproportionate and unlawful, and a further investigation into the legality of such a strike under international laws is necessary.

What about Syria? 

The use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state is strictly prohibited, with exceptions for self-defence. In the case of the Iranian embassy attack, Syria is considered a third country, against which a strong self-defence argument appears unlikely as there is neither an ongoing attack nor an imminent threat from Syria. This complicates Israel’s attempt to justify the legality of its attack in Syria under international law.

A violation of international legal consensus 

This attack has profound implications. International legal norms, founded on a global consensus from historical lessons learned through excessive use of force over diplomacy, emphasise the importance of diplomatic protection laws. These laws, crucial for state survival, signal that power alone cannot sustain states, underscoring international law’s vital role. Violations not only breach these laws but also undermine the consensus formed through historical strife, disrespecting the principles that led to their creation.

The principle of diplomatic inviolability, ancient in origin, is key to promoting cooperation and open communication between nations. Ensuring diplomatic immunity is crucial for stable international relations and preventing conflicts. Upholding these norms is essential for effective global diplomacy and cooperation. Thus, Israel’s recent breach is significant and warrants serious consideration.

What goes around comes around

The assault by Israel on the Iranian embassy in Syria represents more than a mere violation of international statutes; it strikes at the core of established diplomatic practices and the bedrock of global cooperation, significantly weakening the structure of international law itself. Such a reckless move calls for immediate and unequivocal denunciation, given its potential to destabilise the foundational tenets underlying global diplomacy. Crucially, the necessity of adherence to legal standards is universal, even to those who might persuade themselves of their exemption. It is imperative, therefore, that the international community impress upon Tel Aviv the detrimental repercussions that the dilution of these principles holds, not least for Israel itself.

READ: Israel ramps up security at its embassies around the world

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