The Problem With a Host Country Failing to Protect Its Embassies

As the storming of the U.S. embassy in Iraq has shown, diplomatic protection isn’t always a given.

Protesters and militia fighters throw stones toward the U.S. embassy during a protest to condemn air strikes. (Wissm al-Okili / Reuters)

When hundreds of Iraqi protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad today, they were met with little resistance. Though American guards attempted to keep the demonstrators at bay with tear gas and stun grenades, Iraqi authorities ultimately failed to prevent them from breaking through the embassy gates, leaving American personnel trapped inside.

That demonstrators were able to breach the largest and most expensive U.S. embassy ever built was not a matter of luck. Journalists in the region noted the initial lack of intervention by Iraqi security forces to stop the protest, which was spurred by U.S. air strikes over the weekend targeting an Iranian-backed militia near the Iraqi-Syrian border that killed at least 24 people. Washington said the strikes were a response to last week’s rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, in which a U.S. contractor was killed. The Iraqi government was not convinced, and dubbed the U.S. strikes a “flagrant violation” of the country’s sovereignty.

Though President Donald Trump declared Iran “fully responsible” for the unrest, he didn’t absolve Iraq of its role entirely, adding, “We expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” In a phone call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi assured him that he would.

Embassies have long been a focal point for public demonstrations against a specific country’s policies. In the past year alone, there have been protests against the British embassy in Brussels over Brexit, the Chinese embassy in Jakarta over Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and the Indian High Commission in London over the revocation of the special status of Kashmir—and all of them ended relatively peacefully. But what responsibility do host countries have to ensure that they stay that way?

Historically, diplomats—and the missions they are housed within—have always been afforded special protection. Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the responsibility of protecting embassies from intrusion or damage falls to the host country (though some countries, including the U.S., also rely on their own internal security service).

Still, this hasn’t made embassies immune to attacks, nor has it prevented them from often becoming the epicenter of diplomatic standoffs. The demonstrations of anger can also serve the purposes of a host country, without directly implicating it. The 1979 Iran hostage crisis, in which a group of Iranian students seized control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by scaling the walls of the compound, resulted in the embassy being occupied for more than a year. Though not organized by the Iranian regime, it tacitly gained its endorsement.

In 2011, hundreds of Iranian students stormed Britain’s embassy in Tehran in response to economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United Kingdom. Though the Iranian foreign ministry sought to distance itself from the attack, according to The New York Times, Iranian security forces “initially stood by as students laboriously broke through the embassy’s massive main gate.” Then–British Ambassador Dominick Chilcott told The Economist that the Iranian authorities “were behaving so strangely, and failing to come to the assistance of the British diplomats.”

In today’s attack, Iraqi security forces similarly stood by, allowing protesters to storm the heavily fortified U.S. compound unimpeded, starting fires, and, in an echo of the 1979 crisis, chanting “Death to America.”

In a statement issued today, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called on Iraq to “fulfill its international responsibilities” to protect the embassy. So far, however, the Iraqi government—split between public hostility toward the U.S. and its own relationship with Washington—has appeared to follow the Iranian playbook: by not providing sufficient and early security enforcements, thereby apparently allowing the breach of the embassy compound, and issuing warnings against further violence only after it was too late.