The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified a custom that has been in place for centuries when it established the “rule of inviolability”.
This states that local police and security forces are not permitted to enter, unless they have the express permission of the ambassador – even though the embassy remains the territory of the host nation.
The convention is widely adhered to and is regarded as a basic pre-requisite for diplomatic relations.
“Embassies are privileged areas. The local authorities have no rights to enter,” says Colin Warbrick, a specialist in international law and honorary professor at Birmingham University.
Human rights law provides a further layer of protection, in the form of the European Convention on Human Rights and – in the case of the US – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
This means that the embassy is obliged to consider whether there is a real risk that the person could be killed or seriously injured if they were handed over to the local authorities. And if there is, then they could be held accountable if they give the person up.
Possibly the longest case ever of a dissident taking sanctuary in an embassy was that of the Hungarian Catholic Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty who spent 15 years under the protection of the US embassy in Budapest, from 1956 to 1971.
One of the largest occurred just before the fall of the Iron Curtain, when hundreds of East Germans travelled to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary and climbed into the compounds of the West German embassies there.
Manuel Noriega, President of Panama. Took refuge in the Vatican embassy in December 1989 (above). The US bombarded him with loud rock music 24/7 until he could no longer stand it, walked out, and was arrested.
Jozsef Mindszenty, Hungarian Catholic cardinal. He spent 15 years in the US embassy in Budapest from 1956-1971.
Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader took refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare in June 2008. In 2009 he was sworn in as prime minister in a power-sharing government
“Larger embassies will have kitchens normally, and they might have an embassy club. They might be arranged as a compound – in which case they might have staff housing, swimming pools and accommodation where they could put someone.
“But a lot of missions are not like that. It’s just a floor in an office block, which would make life much more difficult.”