Snowden allegations of spying on EU must be taken very seriously
Intrusion would be a clear breach of the Vienna Convention of 1961
Demonstrators in Germany hold placards urging that Edward Snowden be offered asylum. Photograph: Reuters
The allegations, by Edward Snowden, that the United States National Security Agency(NSA), for which he worked, spied on diplomatic missions of the European Union in Washington and New York, and even on the building where EU summits take place in Brussels, are very serious.
They require a deliberate and sustained response, not something exaggerated or that will last only for a one-day news cycle, and later expose contradictions in the EU positions.
The truth is that fundamental values are at stake here for the EU.
The founding idea of the union was that relations in, and between, states should be governed by rules, rather than, as previously, by raw power. States, and individuals, should be equal before the law.
The Snowden allegations, if true, reveal a grave breach of international law by an agency of the United States government.
This is not something that can be emoted about in the short term, and then later brushed aside, with a worldly-wise and jaded shrug, on the basis that “everyone is at it”.
The law on this matter is crystal clear. The Vienna Convention of 1961 codifies the rules under which diplomats and embassies do their work. But the rules themselves go back, in customary international law, to the 16th century.
The 1961 Vienna Convention has been ratified by the United States. Indeed the US relied successfully on that convention in the International Court of Justice, when its own diplomats and embassy were interfered with by Iran in 1979.
It is in the national interest of the United States to ensure that this convention is respected, without question, and as a matter of routine, in order to ensure protection for its own missions abroad.
The Vienna Convention says, in article 22, that “the premises of a [diplomatic] mission shall be inviolable”.
“A receiving state shall not enter them, except with the consent of the Head of Mission”
It adds: “The receiving state is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission from any intrusion.”
Article 24 of the convention says that the “archives and documents of the mission shall be inviolable” and article 27 extends similar protection.
The Snowden/Der Spiegel allegations suggest that listening devices were placed in the EU mission in Washington, without consent, which would be a blatant breach of article 22. No such consent was given in my time in Washington.
They also suggest that the NSA hacked into the computer system of the EU missions, which would be a clear breach of article 24 and 27 of the convention.
Reacting to these allegations, US figures, like the former head of the CIA, made no reference at all to US obligations under international law, to the US interest in protecting diplomacy, or even to the unfairness and bad faith involved in spying on partners with whom one is supposedly negotiating in a transparent way. Instead he sought to dismiss them, by hinting vaguely about intelligence gathering by some EU states.
But what is alleged was not a case of the US reciprocally countering supposed illegal activities by some EU states. It was hostile and illegal activity, by the US, directed against the EU itself, and the EU does not have either the capacity or the authority to carry on any reciprocal surveillance of US missions in Europe, and does not do so. The ex-head of the CIA knows that perfectly well.