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A common misconception that many people have is that embassies are part of the territory of the country that owns the embassy. For example, the American embassy in Canada is part of the United States. 

This is not quite true. 

The theory covering how an embassy or a diplomat works deals with the concept of extraterritoriality.

Learn more about extraterritoriality, the thing which makes international relations function, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The definition of extraterritoriality according to Mirriam Websters is exemption from the application or jurisdiction of local law or tribunals”

Many people think that an embassy is the territory of the country which operates it because the laws of that country operate there. However, that doesn’t make it the territory of that country. 

In the example I gave in the introduction, the American Embassy in Canada is not American territory. It is Canadian territory. However, the land where the embassy is located is subject to extraterritorial jurisdiction. That means that the land might be owned by the United States as property, and the laws of the United States apply there, but it is not sovereign US territory.

What is the difference you might ask? 

In this example, the United States could in the future buy new land for an embassy and move their operations there. In which case, the new land would have extraterritorial status, and the old location of the embassy no longer would. 

Extraterritoriality isn’t a permanent thing. It can be revoked if countries cease having diplomatic relations, or it can be changed or transferred. Sovereign territory is much more permanent. 

The historical development of extraterritoriality, unlike many ideas discussed on this show, does not go back to antiquity. Although honors might have been extended to representatives of a foreign land, it wasn’t necessarily a formal and legal concept.

The concept as we know it extends back to the middle ages. Italian trading republics such as Venice and Genoa negotiated special status for their merchants in cities such as Constantinople and Alexandria, so long as they remained in certain sections of the city. 

Later, the Ottoman Empire would often extend a different set of rules for Europeans who traded in the empire. Much of this was religious, stemming from the fact that the Ottomans were Muslims and the Europeans were Christians.

Extraterritoriality was often forced upon Asian countries like China by Europeans who wanted exclusive trading zones and didn’t want their people to be subject to local laws. 

The post-war treaty which codified exactly how extraterritoriality works and is applied is the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It has been signed by every country in the world except for Palau, the Solomon Islands, and South Sudan.

The idea of extraterritoriality doesn’t just apply to embassies or consulates. It can apply to people and things as well. 

You’ve probably heard of diplomatic immunity. Diplomatic Immunity is nothing more than extraterritoriality extended to people. 

The diplomatic staff of a country and their families will often be extended immunity against local laws. 

Many people wonder just how absolute diplomatic immunity extends. Could, for example, a diplomat commit murder and get away witht he crime?

The answer is, yes, and there have been such cases in recent memory. 

In 1984, a police officer in London was shot from the Libyan embassy. There was a Panamanian diplomat which was charged with rape in the Philippines. There have been numerous cases of abuse, smuggling, non-payment of contracts, and even human trafficking. 

What happens when such an incident occurs?

The country where the diplomat is stationed will usually declare the person persona non grata, which means they are no longer welcome in the country anymore and have to leave immediately. 

Depending on the severity of the crime, and the relations of the two countries, the nation which the diplomat represents can also suspend immunity and allow the person to be punished in the country where it was committed. 

In 1997, a diplomat from the Republic of Georgia was driving while drunk in an accident in Virginia where a 16-year-old girl was killed. In this case, Georgia revoked the diplomat’s immunity. 

In 2004, an American soldier in Romania killed a popular singer in a traffic accident, and the United States refused to lift immunity. Rather, the soldier was court-martialed. 

There have been numerous examples of this over the last 60 years of immunity being used by diplomats who committed crimes in many different countries.

Diplomatic immunity can also extend to objects as well. Communications between an embassy and the home country can be delivered in what is known as a diplomatic pouch. 

The contents of a pouch cannot be searched or inspected when going through customs by another country without starting an international incident.

A diplomatic pouch can be much larger than just a briefcase. 

Computer and communications equipment can be tagged as diplomatic and be transferred in something as large as a shipping container. 

British officials were worried that Julian Assange would be smuggled out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London via a diplomatic pouch. 

One final area where there is extraterritoriality is on ships in international waters. It isn’t quite the same thing because it isn’t in a foreign country, but the laws of the country where the ship is flagged are in effect on the ship. 

There are several places around the world that are subject to special rules of extraterritoriality. 

Vatican City has special extraterritorial status within the city of Rome. There are a host of churches that are under Vatican jurisdiction, including the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo.

The grounds of the United Nations in New York have extraterritorial status, although the host country, in this case, is the UN itself. They have created rules to govern diplomats with UN credentials. 

There are memorials and graveyards around the world which also have extraterritorial status. The American cemetery in Normandy, France is subject to the laws of the United States. 

On the remote island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, the Longwood House where Napoleon lived in exile is owned by France and is under French jurisdiction. I actually met the French envoy to the island who has lived there for several decades. 

The tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, is located just 180 meters over the border of Turkey in Syria. There is a Turkish honor guard stationed there, and they fly the Turkish flag, but the territory is Syria. 

Perhaps the most unique case is the Headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in Rome. The Knights of Malta have extraterritorial status in both Italy and Malta, and they have diplomatic relations with several countries, but they are not themselves a country. They are interesting and worthy enough for a future episode.

So, if you ever walk into an embassy, or shake hands with a diplomat, realize that legally, you are dealing with someone or someplace that is working under a totally different system of laws.