Privacy of Diplomatic Communications

Privacy of Diplomatic Communications

Privacy and Security

Recent attention on the privacy of diplomatic communications and conversations were, once again, brought to light as a result of disclosures made by a British intelligence employee, former United Nations officials, and a former British Cabinet Minister concerning eavesdropping by the US National Security Agency and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

The current controversy began when the British government suddenly dropped its Official Secrets Act case against Katharine Gun, a Chinese linguist working for GCHQ in Cheltenham, UK. Gun was accused of leaking to the British media a TOP SECRET/COMINT memorandum from NSA to GCHQ asking for its help in eavesdropping the communications of non-permanent members of the UN Security Council to determine their intentions on the Security Council resolution authorizing the war on Iraq.

After the case against Gun was dropped, former British International Development Minister Clare Short revealed that she was shown a transcript of a confidential conversation of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It was reported that Annan’s telephone communications and private conversations were bugged by NSA and GCHQ. Since Short’s revelations, several other former UN officials have come forward to describe similar eavesdropping by the British and Americans, which share a decades-old signals intelligence relationship known as the UK-USA Agreement, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix, Rolf Ekeus, and Richard Butler, UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, former Mexican UN ambassador Aguilar Zinser, current Mexican UN ambassador Enrique Berruga, Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear, Chilean ambassador to Britain Mariano Fernandez, and former Chilean UN ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdes, have all spoken about eavesdropping against them and their countries by the Americans and British.

Relevant International Conventions Covering Privacy of UN Communications

The issue of eavesdropping on the diplomatic communications of the UN and its member nations’ missions is covered by three international conventions:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations

Article 27

1. The receiving State shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes. In communicating with the Government and the other missions and consulates of the sending State, wherever situated, the mission may employ all appropriate means, including diplomatic couriers and messages in code or cipher. However, the mission may install and use a wireless transmitter only with the consent of the receiving State.

2. The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable. Official correspondence means all correspondence relating to the mission and its functions.

1947 Headquarters Agreement between the UN and the United States

Section 9

The headquarters district shall be inviolable.

1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN

Article 2

The premises of the United Nations shall be inviolable. The property and assets of the United Nations, wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall be immune from search, requisition, confiscation, expropriation and any other form of interference, whether by executive, administrative, judicial or legislative action.


Privacy and Human Rights 2003 – Section on Surveillance of Communications.