Who holds the keys of the Libyan Embassy?

Oliver Miles

The decisions about Libya that William Hague announced this week brought back memories. I was involved in the expulsion of the Libyan ambassador Musa Kusa and half his staff from London in 1980, and I was myself expelled from Libya in 1984 with my family, my staff and their families following our decision to break off diplomatic relations because of the murder of Yvonne Fletcher. I was a little shocked to hear that the diplomats remaining in the Libyan Embassy have been told to leave within three days. Diplomats are people too, and sorting out your children's schools, selling your car, packing or disposing of your other property and so on takes longer than that.

Recognising the ‘rebel’ Transitional National Council (TNC) as the sole governmental authority in Libya and expelling the last Libyan diplomats from London – we will deal from now on with an ‘envoy’ appointed by the TNC – can be seen as part of the process of increasing the political pressure to force Gaddafi out. But Hague also said this week that Britain would not attempt to block a settlement, if agreed by the Libyans, that might allow Gaddafi to remain in Libya without power. The foreign secretary insisted this apparent concession was not part of a back-channel political negotiation. Nevertheless it must be intended to facilitate a political negotiation, which is the only way this affair is likely to be ended. (Incidentally the announcement is not, as has been suggested, a u-turn. Britain’s position has from the beginning been that Gaddafi must ‘go’, but I have not been able to find any statement that makes it explicit that this means ‘go from Libya’, as opposed to ‘go from power’. What may happen to him after losing power is for the Libyans to decide.)

The Libya Contact Group (the countries supporting the action in Libya) decided two weeks ago to deal with the TNC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. Britain has taken it further by adding the word ‘sole’. I hope this does not mean the British government will break off all dialogue with Gaddafi and his supporters, because you can't negotiate unless you can speak to all parties. But if it doesn't mean that, it's rather hard to see what it does mean.

Hague argued that the Libyan case is unique, but (although every case is unique) there are precedents. I remember intense arguments in the 1960s over whether we should continue to recognise the reactionary old regime of the Imam in Yemen or switch to the dangerous new Egyptian-backed Republic, and I believe it was precisely to avoid such invidious choices that we switched from the old doctrine of recognition or non-recognition of governments to our present doctrine of recognition or non-recognition of states. The recognition of the TNC appears to go some way towards reversing that decision, and it is easy to see that there will be future cases where the same dilemma comes up: possibly Somalia, Yemen, even Syria and no doubt others over the horizon.

The British government is certainly within its rights to expel all the remaining Libyan diplomats, and normally that would imply breaking off diplomatic relations. But it is unprecedented, I believe, for a receiving country to decide who will represent a foreign state. Who is going to hand the new ‘envoy’ the keys of the embassy? As I write, Gaddafi’s green flag is still flying over the building. Who will pull it down? Presumably Hague and his advisers have seen these difficulties coming, which is why they used the informal word ‘envoy’ rather than ‘ambassador’: an ambassador is normally the representative of a head of state, but no one in Libya claims to be that. Maybe the ‘envoy’ will not operate from the embassy building, which would then remain in care for the future. These may seem like matters of mere protocol, to be brushed aside by a confident hand. A flag is only a symbol. But brushing aside protocol or symbols can have unforeseen consequences.


  • 29 July 2011 at 4:07pm
    alex says:
    I can't think of a precedent for the current situation, where not only are diplomatic relations broken off, but this move is accompanied by a recognition of an alternative group of representatives of the respective state. Anyone?

  • 4 August 2011 at 3:54pm
    Fatema Ahmed says:
    The timeline was shorter and the conflict, given the participants, clearer, but Bangladesh in 1971 is some kind of precedent. After the Pakistani military crackdown, the junior (Bengali) diplomats at the Pakistani High Commission in Calcutta defected and stayed on with the permission of the Indian government to create a base for the government in exile and the civil servants who were fleeing the East.
    India recognised the state of Bangladesh and its alternative representatives before there was a state to declare itself but then it had just invaded East Pakistan 3 days before this act…
    The parallels stop there, though. Nato has been bombing Libya for months; it isn't fighting a land war where the other side surrenders after 2 weeks.