This is a much expanded version of Chapter 10 of my textbook, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. It was published in March 2019 and appears on the ISSUU platform here. Links to Updating Pages by chapter can be found here. This is the Contents list:
Preface and Acknowledgements
List of Abbreviations
List of Boxes
List of Illustrations
1 The Ambassador as Agent-runner
The resident mission
The changing role of the ambassador
Consuls as ‘spies’
2 Arrival of the Secret Service
Defence intelligence services
Civilian intelligence services
The intelligence community
Secret intelligence as secret power
3 Cuckoos in the Nest?
The advantages of diplomatic cover
The diplomatic price of diplomatic cover
Repaying the diplomats
4 Spooks as ‘Diplomats’
Intelligence officers as special envoys
Secret service alliances and liaisons
Project 2: Representative offices: de facto embassies, quasi-embassies, or lobby groups? A research note
Representative offices are a form of permanent representation commonly chosen by important regions of sovereign states for the conduct of their affairs abroad. Many such regions using this method are contented (or periodically contented) parts of stable federal states such as Germany and Canada but others, some in unitary states as well, periodically aspire to sovereign statehood themselves. Among them are Palestine, Taiwan, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), the Turkish region of northern Cyprus, Catalonia, Scotland, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Although the generic term remains popular, representative offices sometimes have different names; for example, ‘delegation-general’ for the representative office of Quebec in Paris, ‘American Institute in Taiwan’ for the US office in Taipei, ‘liaison office’ for those exchanged by the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) between 1973 and 1979, and simply ‘representation’ for all of the offices abroad of the KRI.
However they are styled, representative offices are often described loosely as ‘de facto embassies’, ‘quasi-embassies’, ‘embassies by another name’ or ‘informal embassies’. This is understandable because they have in common with official embassies two highly visible attributes: they represent large territorial entities, and they act in much the same way as embassies – negotiating, lobbying, gathering information, fostering business and cultural relations, and so on. Other than this, however, representative offices vary greatly, not least in the degree to which their staff are accorded ‘diplomatic status’. And this is significant because such status carries entitlement to the special privileges and immunities provided in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961 (VCDR), on the good theory that without them a diplomatic mission cannot function properly, especially in a difficult environment. They include the right of direct access to the foreign ministry of the receiving state and the right to display the flag and emblem of the sending state. Conveniently for all concerned (including the researcher) those entitled to diplomatic privileges and immunities are named on the ‘diplomatic list’ of receiving states, many of which are freely accessible on the Internet. If representative offices are studied with this question chiefly in mind, it quickly becomes evident that the figurative terminology used to describe them can be seriously misleading and therefore needs to be tightened. Some are indeed de facto embassies (embassies by another name or informal embassies) because they have virtually full diplomatic status; others are quasi-embassies, because they have only partial diplomatic status; and others should not, without emphatic caveat, be described as a kind of embassy at all because they have no diplomatic status whatsoever – they are simply lobby groups or, in American parlance, ‘foreign agents’ of a ‘foreign principal’ like lobby firms or law firms.
What follows merely scratches the surface of this important subject, which is why I have flagged it on the ‘Need a thesis topic?‘ page.
US and PRC Liaison Offices exchanged, 1973-9
A case of representative offices granted full diplomatic privileges and immunities, and thus to be accurately described as de facto embassies, are those introduced into the new relationship between the United States and the PRC in 1973. By this time the urgent push of the Nixon administration to improve and, indeed, normalise relations with the Communist government in Beijing had ripened, and its consolidation required more direct and permanent channels of communication than those hitherto available. It was understood that normalisation could not happen quickly because the United States still recognised the government on the island of Taiwan as the government of the whole of China, the ‘Republic of China (ROC)’ – and Taiwan had powerful friends in Congress. So it was to cope with the awkward fact that ‘Sino-US’ relations had for long been formally conducted by an ROC embassy in Washington and an American embassy in Taipei that the State Department evolved the idea that Washington and Beijing should exchange what it decided to call ‘liaison offices’. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, later secretary of state, was feverishly anxious to drive forward the opening to Communist China because on it turned his whole geopolitical strategy. As a result, although he was initially hostile to the State Department proposal, fearing it would threaten his direct control of the China relationship, he was converted to the idea and, among other things, proposed that, as a ‘courtesy’, liaison offices should enjoy ‘diplomatic privileges and immunities’, which was readily accepted by the Chinese. It was also agreed that flags could be flown, and that, while the head of each office would be styled ‘chief of the liaison office’, they should have the personal rank of ambassador. Legally confirming the main point for the American side, on 20 April 1973 Congress duly authorised the president ‘to extend to the Liaison Office of the People’s Republic of China in Washington and to the members thereof the same privileges and immunities subject to corresponding conditions and obligations as are enjoyed by diplomatic missions accredited to the United States and by members thereof’. In the following month the liaison offices were opened. It is true that these representative offices laboured under some minor handicaps. Without formal ‘diplomatic status’, their staff were not members of the diplomatic corps in Beijing or Washington. Among other things, this meant that they were not as visible as they might otherwise have been, and their absence from routine diplomatic gatherings reduced their ability to build contacts and gather information. Nevertheless, Kissinger was clearly right to tell Nixon, on 2 March 1973, that these offices would be ‘closely equivalent to Embassies in everything but name’, even though he had resisted the same conclusion when it was alleged by the alarmed ROC ambassador (Shen) a little over a week earlier.
Kissinger’s Visits to Beijing and the Establishment of the Liaison Offices, January 1973–May 1973, FRUS
ADST Oral Histories This is a very rich source for this case. Using Advanced Search, key ‘liaison office Beijing’, starting with the transcript of the interview with Chas. Freeman. NB You have to search again on each transcript.
General Delegation of Quebec in Paris
The General Delegation in Paris of the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec is one of eight general delegations now operated abroad by Quebec (lower classes of its representative offices are delegations, bureaus and, on the bottom rung, trade offices). However, in 1964, on the insistence of the French president, General Charles de Gaulle, and to the discomfort of the French foreign ministry, as a ‘courtesy’ the Quebec office was given diplomatic privileges and immunities, including direct, top-level access to the French government. However, I am doubtful that it has ever had full diplomatic privileges and immunities, as claimed by Rodrigo Tavares in his Paradiplomacy (OUP, 2016). For one thing, a New York Times article in 1983 reported that while the Paris office had ‘diplomatic status’, its vehicles were only permitted ‘consular license plates’. (There is a rough symmetry in this because France has a consulate-general in Quebec.) Therefore, I hesitate to call this a de facto embassy and think it safer to class it as a quasi-embassy until proved to the contrary. There is probably more on this in the three volumes of the University of Toronto Press’s Canada’s Department of External Affairs, which bring its story up to 1984, but which I have not been able to consult. Irritatingly, I have been unable to find the Paris Diplomatic List on the Internet.
Québec government offices abroad
Sarra-Bournet, Michel, ‘La naissance de la Délégation Générale du Québec à Paris’, Études canadiennes, 73, 2012 mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2014
Kaufman, Michael T., ‘Go-it-alone Quebecois find allies in the Walloons’, New York Times, 11 April 1983
US and Taiwan representative offices exchanged, 1979-to date
The third example I wish to mention is that of the representative offices exchanged by the United States and Taiwan. This followed the announcement on 15 December 1978 that the United States and the PRC would recognize each other and establish diplomatic relations on 1 January 1979, and exchange ambassadors and open embassies on 1 March. (The corollary of this was withdrawal of recognition of the ROC government as the government of the whole of China.) Known currently as the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) (until 3 January 1995 known as the Coordination Council for North American Affairs), these representative offices have marked similarities to the US/PRC liaison offices in the first example.
It is quite easy to assess the position here because the agreements on the status, privileges and immunities of AIT and TECRO have all been published and are freely available on the Internet, as are the highly informative oral history transcripts of many of the US personnel who have served in AIT. The founding agreements were the Taiwan Relations Act, 10 April 1979, and the Agreement on Privileges, Exemptions and Immunities of 2 October 1980, which was tightened and substantively revised in 2013.
Under these agreements, like embassies, both representative offices have responsibility for the conduct of relations on all subjects (‘commercial, cultural and other relations’ – my emphasis), despite the misleading title of Taiwan’s office. In further strong resemblance to genuine embassies, they have many special privileges and immunities expressly designed to enable them to discharge their functions effectively. As well as the usual tax exemptions, notable among these are the provisions for the absolute inviolability of the offices’ communications (including the ‘bag’), premises and assets, archives and documents. And as for the personal immunity of their employees (those analogous to diplomatic officers, plus administrative and technical staff) and their immediate family members, this is complete: they are immune from suit and all legal processes relating to acts performed by them within the scope of their authorized functions, immune from criminal jurisdiction altogether, not liable to any form of arrest or detention, not obliged to appear as a witness before any court, and enjoy a private residence and possessions immune from forced entry and search. As for the branch offices, which are analogous to consulates, the head and deputy head are also not liable to arrest or detention pending trial, except in the case of a criminal offense punishable by one year or more in prison; while the provision on the inviolability of their premises is surprisingly stronger than that contained in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963, for – just like embassies under the VCDR – entry into them is forbidden without consent in any circumstances; in other words, there is no ‘fire clause’ for the subsidiary offices, of which TECRO has many. It is also worth noting that the TECRO office in Washington is not required to register as a lobbying firm under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) but – with typical ambiguity – as a ‘foreign principal’. (Technically, this is surely its private headquarters in Taipei.)
On the other hand, both new representative offices were established – and remain – essentially private bodies. They work nominally under the direction of their own headquarters at home rather than the foreign ministry, and government employees working for them can only do so by leaving government service, albeit – at least in the case of AIT – on the express promise that they can return without loss of benefits. A further implication of their private status is the requirement that they should have no direct dealings with the foreign ministry in the receiving state, but instead deal with them via the headquarters of their counterpart organization, which for this reason are commonly referred to by US diplomats as ‘cutouts’. They fly no flags, are led by ‘directors’ rather than ambassadors, and generally have few if any of the trappings of embassies. And, while the offices and their staff enjoy special indulgence in regard to such matters as customs clearance and alien registration and fingerprinting, they do so only to the extent that they are engaged in carrying out their official duties; they are not – unlike genuine diplomats – indulged in regard to their private acts as well. In short, they are treated in these respects more like consular officers and, under the US ‘restrictive theory’ of sovereign immunity, public international organizations. Furthermore, as pointed out by Michael Glennon, a lawyer and former legal counsel to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, to a House of Representatives Committee in February 1985, not only are the privileges and immunities enjoyed by the AIT and TECRO ‘narrower’ than those of embassies; they are also grounded not in (public) international law (VCDR) but in US statute (the Taiwan Relations Act 1979), which can be changed more readily. He might have added that the privileges and immunities sketched in the TRA were filled out in bilateral agreements between the two private bodies, which could themselves be more easily modified – as, indeed, they already had been. In short, the privileges and immunities of AIT and TECRO are not only narrower but less firmly grounded than genuine diplomatic privileges and immunities. For these reasons, especially the last, I think it more accurate to describe these representative offices as quasi-embassies.
Agreement on Privileges, Exemptions and Immunities between the Coordination Council for North American Affairs and the American Institute in Taiwan, 2 October 1980
The Murder of Henry Liu. Hearings and Markup before the Committee on Foreign Affairs and its Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, House of Representatives, 99th Congress, 7 February, 21 March, 3 April 1985 (US Govt. Printing Office: Washington 1985), pp. 84-8
Palestine has now been widely recognised as a state. As a result, in those many countries that have given it this benediction the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is represented by de jure embassies. In those states that have resisted but are nevertheless sympathetic to Palestine’s aspiration to statehood, a new representative office known simply as a ‘mission’ has been invented, which in most of its manifestations is a de facto embassy. As far as I can tell, it was France that pioneered this diplomatic device when, in July 2010, the ‘General Delegation of Palestine’ in Paris was ‘upgraded’ to ‘Palestinian Mission’. Over the next few years, among those fellow European states that followed the French example were Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Germany, Italy, the UK, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Nordic countries. (With others that made the same move there were titular variations: ‘diplomatic representation’ in Greece, and ‘diplomatic mission’ in Spain and Portugal.) This means that there is now what will probably prove an influential model, a ladder of levels of representative offices that would-be states must contemplate ascending in order to have their representations acquire ‘diplomatic status’; that is, become de jure embassies. The rungs on this ladder are as follows: (1) information office/trade office/representation, delegation etc > (2) general delegation > (3) mission > (4) embassy.
Unfortunately, not all Palestinian Missions enjoy the same advantages. Certainly, all have shared in the symbolic upgrading implied in the new title: ‘mission’, after all, is close to ‘diplomatic mission’, which is VCDR language for ‘embassy’; and, as noted above, Spain and Portugal have actually preferred exactly this title. But in practical terms the rebranding as a mission has turned out to be less of an upgrade in some receiving states than in others. The mission turns out to be a ladder within a ladder. Revealing evidence of this is to be found in the diplomatic lists which – with rare exceptions – alone confirm enjoyment of diplomatic privileges and immunities. I have consulted the latest available online in February 2019.
The bottom rung on the mission ladder is illustrated by the UK, where the new status for the Palestinians in London conferred on them only ‘simplified visa arrangements’ and ‘other administrative benefits’; among the latter, better car-parking facilities. This mission certainly appears on the London Diplomatic List, it is true, but at the end of a residual category – ‘Other Representative Offices & Organisations in the UK’ – in which the others are the Arab League and the International Commission on Decommissioning (seriously); this list is itself the last of a long list of the representatives of other residual categories. Furthermore, below the title of the page on which the Palestinian Mission is to be found is the following cautionary observation: ‘This list is provided for information only. Some of the persons listed may have certain privileges & immunities’ (emphasis added). Since the head of the Palestinian Mission in London is not accorded the title ‘Ambassador’, it is a reasonable assumption that this mission has no diplomatic privileges and immunities at all.
More popular is the second rung, where Palestinian missions are also placed in an ‘other representations’ category in the receiving state’s diplomatic list but (a) the head of mission is accorded the title ‘Ambassador’; (b) on average, one other member of the mission is named; and (c) there is no suggestion that they do not have diplomatic privileges and immunities. This is the position of the Palestinian Missions in Norway (Ambassador +2 staff), Finland (+1), Germany (+0), and Switzerland (+1).
On the third and top rung are those Palestinian Missions which are (a) headed by an Ambassador, (b) placed amidst the embassies proper in the body of the diplomatic list, (c) also have at least three additional named staff and (d) leave no reason to doubt that all those named have full diplomatic privileges and immunities. This is the position of the Palestinian Missions in Austria (Ambassador +3 staff); Ireland (+3); Italy (+4); Spain (+5); and Portugal (+1). In Italy, the Palestinian Ambassador is even given the grander and more usual – if now perfectly ridiculous – title of ‘Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.
I judge that Palestinian Missions on the first rung are quasi-embassies, that those on the second are borderline quasi/de facto embassies, and that those on the third are unambiguously de facto embassies. In the course of 2013 the Nordic countries went so far as to announce publicly that it was indeed their intention to make their Palestinian Missions de facto embassies. This is the key statement, made here in the names of Denmark and Finland:
“The joint intention by the two countries to present to the Palestinian Government a draft agreement that would give a status equivalent to that of an embassy to the Palestinian Missions in their respective capitals should be seen not least in the context of the on-going Nordic cooperation. With this decision, all Nordic countries will be offering the same working conditions for official Palestinian representatives as is the case for accredited diplomats serving in an embassy of a recognized state.”
In the following year, Sweden broke ranks by recognizing Palestine as a state and, therefore, allowing it a de jure embassy in Stockholm.
By way of a footnote, it is interesting, if rather confusing, that in the same period that the major European states upgraded Palestinian representation from general delegation to mission, the United States engaged in similar upgrading – but from ‘mission’ (the term then used by the PLO in Washington) to general delegation! Be that as it may, the only real difference, although symbolically important, was that the rebranded office was to be allowed to fly the Palestinian flag. And in a letter to the ‘Chief Representative’ of the PLO in Washington, dated 20 July 2010 and viewable in a PLO supplemental on the FARA website, the State Department made clear that:
“these modifications do not confer diplomatic privileges and immunities and do not alter the status of the office which is not a diplomatic mission or embassy under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, customary international law, or United States law.”
In other words, in the United States the Palestinian general delegation remained little more than another ‘foreign agent’, like a lobby firm or law firm working for a ‘foreign principal’, until closed down in 2018 by what passes for an American presidency, the Trump administration.
Palestinian Mission in the UK
At the other end of the continuum of representative offices varying by proximity to genuine embassies are those of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, of which there are 14 at the time of writing (February 2019). These appear formally to enjoy no special privileges and immunities of any kind and in the United States are required to register as lobbyists under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This obligates them to reveal not only the ‘foreign principal’ whom they are serving but also, periodically, to make extensive disclosures of their activities and finances to the Attorney General – all upon pain of criminal charges should they fail to do so. In December 2006 the Kurdistan ‘Representation’ in the United States was registered as a private non-profit corporation in the District of Columbia under the name ‘Kurdistan Regional Government – Liaison Office – USA’, and it was under that title that it registered with the FARA Registration Unit. The Kurdish Representation in Australia is in Sydney, not the capital, Canberra, which suggests an absence of, or at least a low priority for political and military work, although all others are in capital cities. In countries particularly sympathetic to Kurdish nationalism, not afraid to antagonise Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and with no separatist movements on their own territories, there may well be a tacit indulgence of certain Kurdish representative offices that in reality shifts them some distance towards the other end of the continuum. But as far as I can see it would probably be more accurate to describe them either as lobby groups or – depending on more information – quasi-consulates.
KRG offices abroad
Why is serious research into this question important? The most obvious reason is that we know very little about most representative offices, and they are not only very numerous but also – by definition – politically sensitive. Furthermore, as I hope I have made clear, they are not a uniform institution. Another reason is that we need to know whether those that fail to become de facto embassies are in practice seriously handicapped by their lower status. (One in particular that immediately occurs to me because of the work I did for my recent book, Diplomacy and Secret Service, is that, with reduced if any diplomatic immunity, they will not be very attractive hosts to secret service stations, although many genuine diplomats might regard this as an advantage.) This could be a significant question for some would-be states, for I suspect that receiving states are inclined to use the offer of different forms of ‘upgrading’ (e.g. an increase in the number of staff to be given diplomatic immunity) as negotiating points in their general relations with them.
Any further research on this subject I leave to others. There is plenty of scope here for MA or doctoral theses.
Diplomatic Lists available on the Internet are fairly easily found by googling e.g. ‘Oslo diplomatic list’, or ‘Diplomatic Corps Norway’, by either of which routes you will bring up first ‘Diplomatic relations – regjeringen.no’ and then the link on this page to the Oslo Diplomatic List. Others can be found more directly. Remember, you are looking for the official (not Wikipedia!) list of embassies and other representations in particular capitals, not lists of states’ own missions abroad.