Policing protest at embassies: Legislative differences between Australia and the UK

SA embassy

As I’ve written about in previous posts (here and here), one of my research projects has been looking at the policing of protest in the Australian Capital Territory and the use of the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 (Cth). I’ve argued previously that the Public Order Act was an amalgam of competing interests and thus tried to legislate against many different forms of protest activity, including protests directed towards foreign representatives in Australia and their posts (predominantly the embassies in Canberra and their consulates in the other capital cities. Section 14 of the POA outlined the purpose of the Act in terms of providing protection to foreign representatives:

The provisions of this Part, except in so far as they apply in relation to designated overseas missions, are intended to assist in giving effect, on the part of Australia, to the special duty imposed by international law on a state that receives a diplomatic or special mission, or consents to the establishment of a consular post, to take appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission or post against intrusion or damage, to prevent any attack on the persons, freedom or dignity of the personnel of the mission or post and to prevent disturbance of the peace, or impairment of the dignity, of the mission or post.

In various government documents and parliamentary speeches, the Liberal Government stated that they felt duty bound to include Part III of the Act (relating to the protection of foreign representatives and their posts) because of their obligations under the Vienna Convention (although the Convention had been signed almost a decade earlier). It was essentially admitted to by the Government that the Act was to protect the United States, South African and South Vietnam embassies, which were under increasing pressure by the radical protest movement that grew in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At the same time, my friend Gavin Brown has been working on this project, looking at the non-stop picket against Apartheid, outside the South African Embassy in London in Trafalgar Square between 1986 and 1990. What I found fascinating was that the picket, despite harassment by the police , was allowed to occur and that there was little legislative action that the authorities could effectively take against the protest. I wondered whether the UK had similar legislation to Part III of the POA regarding protests within the vicinity of embassies and consulates.

After asking some academic friends, I hadn’t been able to find anything. Gavin had said that the formal protection of embassies and consulates (as required under the Vienna Convention) was rarely an issue and that if the non-stop picket ever fell foul of the law, much more mundane public order legislation was used.

So I emailed the Home Office, asking:

I am an Australian academic and am currently conducting research into the policing of protests at foreign embassies in Australia and the UK since the 1960s. I am writing to enquire whether there is specific legislation in the UK that concerns the protection of foreign embassies, consulates and representatives (in line with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations). I am particularly interested in finding out whether there is UK legislation that deals with public disorder and unruly/violent behaviour in the vicinity of foreign embassies or consulates. (Similar to Part III of the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 (Cth) in Australian legislation).

After a week, I got a reply that simply said:

The matters you have raised are the responsibility of Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

So I emailed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who gave this response:

I am not aware of any specific UK legislation that deals with public disorder and unruly/violent behaviour in the vicinity of foreign embassies or consulates, only that we abide by the Vienna Convention on Consular relations.  
I am sorry I could not be more helpful. I will, in the meantime, forward your email to the Home Office, who are responsible for any legislation regarding protection of foreign missions in the UK.
So it seems that there is no specific legislation in the UK that restricts the ability to protest in the vicinity of embassies and consulates, unlike Australia, where Part III of the POA deals specifically with this issue (and in great detail). In my research, I have found one reference to the protest outside the South African Embassy and the Vienna Convention. In 1988, Tory MP John Carlisle railed against the non-stop picket and asked in Parliament:

Two questions must be asked about this sorry affair, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to take the first of them to the Foreign Secretary. Are the Government fulfilling their obligations under the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964, under which a responsibility is placed on the receiving state to protect the peace and dignity of a diplomatic mission as well as the persons and possessions relating to such a mission? Under the Vienna convention we are ignoring our responsibilities by allowing this demonstration to continue in its present form.

The second question is whether the Government are wholly satisfied that the police have to rely on local byelaws to arrest those who offend, and that cases can be brought only against individuals, not against groups. Will my right hon. Friend ask our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider bringing in legislation to prevent this sort of thing happening to embassies?

The next place to look, I guess, is into the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964…

If anyone has any further information into the legislation used to police protests outside embassies in the UK, please get in touch.


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