North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

Tensions Rising Over Treatment of US Diplomats By Russia

By: Alli Davidson

On October 3, 2016, two US diplomats reported being drugged while attending a UN conference in Russia last year.[1] This incident adds to the increasing tension between the US and Russia. In 2013, the State Department’s Inspector General released a report on the U.S. embassy in Moscow that stated, “[E]mployees face intensified pressure by the Russian security services at a level not seen since the days of the Cold War.”[2] This drugging incident, along with an altercation just a few months earlier that involved a Russian guard tackling a US diplomat outside of the US Embassy in Moscow,[3] as well as other times US officials in Russia have faced harassment,[4] have led to questions as to which laws protect foreign diplomats and what consequences can be enforced.

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Defining how international law covers the treatment of foreign officials has proven to be difficult in recent years. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which allows US nationals to sue foreign states for harm caused to them, has been interpreted to include government officials operating in the scope of their official capacity.[5] The UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property could also be a key component to how international law governs the treatment of foreign officials.[6] This treaty was adopted in December 2004 by the UN General Assembly, of which both Russia and the US are members, but has yet to be ratified.[7] Other doctrines, such as the Act-of-State Doctrine, seem to breach the topic of the treatment of foreign diplomats, but do not cover this area of international law as concretely as the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.[8]

Thus the responsibility falls on US courts to interpret acts of foreign countries against foreign diplomats if the diplomat chooses to sue[9] … though it seems unlikely that the series of recent events between the US and Russia will lead to lawsuits. Both countries have struggled with handling diplomatic relations between each other since the Cold War.[10] However, the recent string of incidents has prompted the State Department to protest to Russian leaders.[11] Russian leaders have denied these allegations and are “outraged” by the accusation, claiming it is “revenge” for the collapse of the efforts to address the situation in Syria.[12] While US officials would not comment on this particular situation, Elizabeth Trudeau of the US State Department stated, “[All] I can say is that we are troubled…we remain troubled by the way our diplomatic and consular staff have been treated over the past two years. We have raised our concerns at the highest levels.”[13]

What seems to be occurring and what is likely to occur in the future are discussions amongst government officials as to how to best handle the most recent incident and any further incidents. The recent alleged drugging is the first incident to cause physical harm to US officials, indicating that further action may be taken if incidents continue to escalate.[14]


[1] Mike Eckel, Two U.S. Diplomats Drugged in St. Petersburg Last Year, Deepening Washington’s Concern, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Oct. 3, 2016), http://www.rferl.org/a/russia-u-s-diplomats-drugged-st-petersburg/28028782.html [https://perma.cc/4JUQ-KCLC].

[2] Id.

[3] Doug Stanglin, Russia Expels 2 U.S. Diplomats in Fallout over Bizarre Embassy Fracas, USA Today (July 9, 2016, 10:38 AM EDT), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/07/09/russia-expels-2-us-diplomats-fallout-over-bizarre-embassy-fracas/86809674/ [https://perma.cc/P4UX-B7Q9].

[4] Id.

[5] Barry E. Carter & David P. Stewart, Jurisdiction and Immunities in U.S. Foreign Relations Law, 104 Am. Soc’y Int’l Proc. 307, 308-09 (2010).

[6]  Id. at 310.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Ivan Tsvetkov, In Treatment of Diplomats, Russia Still Playing by Cold War Rules, Russia Direct, (July 5, 2016), http://www.russia-direct.org/opinion/treatment-diplomats-russia-still-playing-cold-war-rules [https://perma.cc/ND8U-BJF3].

[11] Jamie Crawford, Russia Denies Drugging US Diplomats, CNN (Oct. 5, 2016, 9:01 PM ET), http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/05/politics/russia-denies-drugging-us-diplomats/index.html [https://perma.cc/M7NG-38TK].

[12] Id.

[13] Stephen McNeice, US Claims Harassment of its Diplomats in Russia ‘Has Increased Significantly’, newstalk.com (Oct. 4, 2016), http://www.newstalk.com/US-claims-surveillance-and-harassment-of-its-diplomats-in-Russia-has-increased-significantly [https://perma.cc/M9Y5-BXMR].

[14] Eckel, supra note 1.

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