Diplomats are known to get a variety of unusual perks, diplomatic immunity being an oft talked about example. But perhaps the strangest of these perks is access to diplomatic pouches or bags. These are bags that are illegal to search, even when crossing multiple international borders. However, these bags aren’t quite what they seem.
It’s unclear exactly when diplomatic pouches were first used, but their underlying purpose has existed for centuries. Records from ancient Egypt mention secret messengers who would carry the Pharaoh’s words across Egypt and to neighboring states. In the 15th century the English King Richard the Third officially created a covert courier service to communicate with his representatives throughout the British Empire. The tradition grew in the 18th century as, in 1795, the United Kingdom expanded the service to include operations in foreign countries. Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat, hired the first official diplomatic courier just ten days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Until the late-19th century, diplomatic couriers received no special protection from the law, and the job became dangerous during periods of war. The danger peaked during the Second Hundred Years’ War of the 18th century between France and Great Britain, as couriers were kidnapped or even killed for the contents of their messages.
This widespread unlawfulness changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as countries began to sign bilateral agreements that placed protections on couriers and protected any parcels that they carried. The majority of these agreements were signed by countries in good diplomatic standing with one another, and therefore had little practical effect.
It wasn’t until the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that a global standard was put in place regarding diplomatic couriers and the concept of the diplomatic pouch was officially created. 192 countries attended the convention, and 60 of the attendees signed the treaty. Since then, 192 countries have ratified the treaty, including North Korea. The only exceptions to this ratification are South Sudan, Palau, and the Solomon Islands, who either rely solely on domestic law or have chosen to apply the treaty to countries on a case-by-case basis.
Rules and Regulations
Diplomatic bags are specifically addressed in Article 27 of the treaty:
Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 27 discuss the inviolability of official correspondence to and from diplomatic missions. Paragraphs 3 through 5 say,
The diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained
The packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use…
The diplomatic courier, …shall be protected by the receiving State [and] enjoy personal inviolability and shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention.”
Those few sentences contain a lot of meaning, so let’s unpack them.
First, the treaty makes no ruling as to the size or material of a diplomatic pouch. This means it can be anything from a manilla envelope to a large crate, as long as it bears visible external marks of its character. Most countries have official diplomatic pouches for small items, but the proper signage can be attached to the outside of just about any type of container to qualify it for inviolability.
Second, modern interpretations of article 3, which state that the bag shall not be opened, include any form of search. This makes it illegal to x-ray a pouch or to allow a detection dog to sniff it.
Third, the treaty limits use of these bags to “articles intended for official use.” However, the international community has applied a broad interpretation to this language. For instance, diplomats from all countries are allowed to send personal mail via diplomatic pouch, and are often only restricted from shipping larger personal items because of the cost for moving heavier goods. So, while there are many “incorrect” uses for these pouches, it’s nearly impossible to define the “correct” use.
Fourth, a diplomatic courier’s immunity extends to their own personal baggage, as long as there is no probable cause to believe it contains anything “prohibited by the law in the receiving state.” Most governments, including the UK and America, have dedicated full-time couriers, but a courier can also be appointed on an ad hoc basis, and even ad hoc messengers enjoy full immunity.
This broad and airtight law may seem to give couriers unlimited power to break the law while smuggling drugs across every border imaginable, but there is one huge caveat. The Vienna Convention treaty only restricts receiving countries with regards to foreign diplomats and their bags, and does nothing to dictate a nation’s law regarding their own citizens’ use of the bags.
So, while it’s illegal for the United States to, for example, x-ray a British diplomat’s pouch, they can, and often do, x-ray those belonging to American diplomats. The American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that all parcels boarding an aircraft in the United States are x-rayed, and diplomatic pouches belonging to the U.S. are no exception, though they are x-rayed by officials from the state department instead of by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Every country has its own set of rules relating to diplomatic pouches, often in regards to who can use them or when they can be used. The United States has more written rules than any other country, most of which can be found in the ten-thousand word 14th Foreign Affairs Manual Section 720. On the other hand, New Zealand has about 400 words. Most countries fall somewhere between these two.
One of the more interesting areas that domestic laws address is when a receiving country is allowed to search a diplomatic bag. In the UK, a law was passed in 1984 that gives British constables the ability to search a diplomatic bag if they have received a warrant from a county judge. A warrant is only granted if there are “reasonable grounds for believing [that it]…may contain firearms, ammunition, or materials for causing explosions.” If such a warrant is approved by the judge, then the sending country has the option to remove the bag from the UK instead of subjecting it to a search.
This law may seem to be in direct conflict with the Vienna Convention, but the treaty also states in Article 41.1 that “it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.” As such, most countries followed the precedent set by the UK and created similar laws to allow the searching of a diplomatic pouch if it’s suspected to contain illicit goods, though these laws are only enforced in rare circumstances.
Another unexpected portion of, specifically, American domestic law on diplomatic pouches relates to who can use a pouch. While diplomatic pouches may seem like they are set aside exclusively for high-profile diplomats and officials, they are available to government officials or people participating in government programs for a wide variety of uses. Peace Corps administrators are allowed to use them for personal mail, Fulbright Scholars are permitted to a one-time use in order to transport educational materials to their country of assignment, and, according to one particularly antiquated rule, government offices can use them to import DVDs to foreign countries to establish a free video rental club for the office’s employees.
They are even available to private citizens in one specific circumstance. In election years, any US citizen living overseas is allowed to use a diplomatic pouch to send their absentee ballot to election officials in the United States.
It’s impossible to discuss diplomatic bags without including some of the most notorious cases of misuse. The idea of passing cargo across borders without search naturally lends itself to smuggling, and, historically, drugs have been the most common paraphernalia. In the 1980s, stories of officials using diplomatic bags for drug trafficking reached an all-time high and played a key role in influencing countries’ laws on searching these bags. One of the first high-profile examples was in 1985, when a Belgian diplomat attempted to smuggle 10 kilograms (22 lbs) of heroin into the United States, but was arrested when authorities claimed he did not have immunity in the United States, because he was an ambassador to India. Two separate cases of cocaine trafficking were exposed in 2012. Italian officials detected 40 kilograms (88 lbs) of cocaine smuggled in a pouch from Ecuador, and, later that year, a duffel bag disguised as a diplomatic bag was shipped from Mexico to the UN headquarters in New York while carrying 16 kilograms (35 lbs) of cocaine.
Those examples seem to point to a single rogue operative, but what if a country’s government actually encouraged its citizens to smuggle drugs with diplomatic pouches? That may be the case in North Korea, where economic sanctions have forced the Kim regime to look for creative ways to fund its nuclear development program. North Korea has embassies in many East Asian countries, countries with somewhat porous borders, and local police and reporters in the region claim that shipments of heroin and ecstasy are coming in under the direction of officials from Kim Jong-Un’s government.
But drugs aren’t the only valuable materials that can fit in a bag. In July 2020, Indian officials found 30 kilograms (66 lbs) of gold worth $2 million smuggled into the country from the UAE in a diplomatic bag. The details of the case are unclear due to their recency, though several Indian citizens have been arrested and the UAE has claimed no knowledge of the shipment.
Smuggling drugs or gold may be a simple way to use this system for economic gain, but the bags have also been misused for political reasons. Shortly after the Vienna Convention, the Egyptian government successfully used a large crate marked as a diplomatic bag to smuggle a defected military official back into Egypt. They tried the method again in an attempt to move an Israeli spy from Rome to Cairo, though this attempt was thwarted when Italian authorities seized the cargo after reportedly hearing moans from inside the crate.
Not all misuses are so nefarious, though. The Canadian government used diplomatic pouches to send fake passports to Iran in 1984, in a successful attempt to smuggle six American diplomatic employees out of the country during the Islamic Revolution.
While there aren’t a ton of stories about misuses, the majority of these stories are from failed attempts. It’s impossible to know just how many times they’ve been used successfully.
Diplomatic pouches have lived up to their reputation as tools for smuggling, but they’ve also played an important role in covert international communication. The US alone sent over 116,000 diplomatic packages last year, but how many of those contained illegal paraphernalia? There’s no way for us to know, but, at what point does it become too high of a cost to preserve the immunity of diplomatic bags, and diplomats in general? With the rise of electronic communication, does the global community even need these bags anymore?