In today’s age of instant communication via secure cellphones, encrypted email, and face-to-face videoconferencing, the notion of using a physical satchel to relay confidential documents and materials between countries and their diplomatic personnel abroad may seem rather antiquated. Yet the centuries-old custom of the diplomatic pouch remains a hallmark of international relations due to its privileged, inviolable status under the Vienna Convention. This traditional practice, however, also potentially poses a thoroughly modern security threat – illicit transport of radiological and/or nuclear (RN) materials.

THE DIPLOMATIC POUCH

Intended to ensure the confidentially of diplomatic papers and communiques, the diplomatic pouch has evolved over centuries into a cornerstone of diplomatic practice. While diplomatic pouches have traditionally been bags along the lines of ‘canvas sacks’[1], the Vienna Convention places no limitations on either the size or weight of containers with clear diplomatic markings and official seals. The treaty explicitly bars the transportation of any objects not intended for official usage in diplomatic bags while conversely holding such bags and their contents as sacrosanct. The pouches are exempt from even non-invasive security procedures such as “metal detectors, electronic scanning, or canine sniffing without opening or detaining the bag.”[2] Thus, in practice, there is no lawful method by which customs authorities in the host country may ascertain whether diplomatic bags are being utilized for illegitimate purposes and the system operates on the good-faith expectation on the part of the states and their representatives.

The ease with which illicit objects can be moved via diplomatic pouches has, however, often proven too much of a temptation. There have been a number of documented cases involving the abuse of this privilege; despite the potential international scandal, diplomatic pouches have been employed in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and money.[3] In one noteworthy instance, an attempt was made by the Nigerian government to kidnap, drug, and ship the nation’s exiled former Transportation Minister, Alhaji Umaro Dikko, back to Nigeria via a diplomatic crate. The kidnapping was foiled, however, when a vigilant customs officer became suspicious of an overwhelming medical odor emanating from last-minute cargo addition on a flight bound for Lagos.[4] The crates in question had been declared as diplomatic pouches but, critically, did not bear the requisite markings identifying the containers as diplomatic bags.[5] An unconscious Dikko was discovered in one of the crates, along with an anesthetist tasked with ensuring Dikko’s physical health during the trip to Nigeria.[6]

UN Drug IncidentMore recently, there has been a number of cases reported in which criminal organizations and individuals have attempted to use fraudulent diplomatic bags to smuggle illicit objects, particularly narcotics. On January 16, 2012, for example, a shipment containing 16 kilograms of cocaine was intercepted by the United Nations headquarters security in New York City. The unaddressed white bag, emblazoned with a rather unconvincing rendering of the organization’s logo and made of a different material than standard UN diplomatic pouches, arrived at the UN mail sorting facility from Mexico City by way of Cincinnati. Notebooks inside the bag were hollowed out to accommodate the cocaine. United Nations officials contacted the DEA and local police upon discovery of the drugs. The destination of the shipment, as well as the identity of the shipper, remains unknown, though a UN spokesman rejected any suggestion that the drugs had been sent from or intended for anyone affiliated with the UN.[7]

While the poor quality of the forged UN bags in this case quickly alerted authorities to the scam, there is a clear concern that future attempts at creating fraudulent diplomatic pouches will be of a high caliber. The potential for convincingly falsified containers conveying far more dangerous cargo, such as RN materials, to bypass security screenings by exploiting the international laws and traditions protecting diplomatic pouches is a risk that must be taken seriously.

IMPLICATIONS

The incidents detailed above have profound implications for the potential use, both authentic and fraudulent, of diplomatic pouches for illicit RN trade, smuggling, and/or terrorism. The record clearly shows that the privileged status of diplomatic bags – free from search or screening – makes them a prized method for smuggling by diplomatic and embassy personnel as well as criminal organizations. The recent growth in the use of fake diplomatic pouches showcases this attractiveness; smugglers without the connections needed to gain access to legitimate diplomatic bags may simply attempt to pass off fraudulent pouches as authentic. The lack of limitations or specifications as to the size or model of the pouches means that even extremely large objects can be moved across borders with impunity. One can easily extrapolate the appeal of such a system to actors seeking to illicitly traffic RN materials, not to mention weapons, explosives, or any number of other illicit goods for terroristic purposes.

The inviolability of the diplomatic pouch under current international law thus represents a substantial challenge to officials charged with preventing RN trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism. Despite the inherent risks that unscreened diplomatic bags may contain objects or materials designed to cause harm or circumvent laws, there is little political appetite, either in the United States or abroad, to change the established system.[8] Thus, unless and until an incident of such magnitude occurs which renders inaction untenable, the diplomatic pouch will in all likelihood remain immune from even the most basic screening procedures, continuing to serve as a potential source of intrusion for smugglers and those with more nefarious aims.

[1] Ashman, Chuck, and Pamela Trescott. 1986. Outrage: The Abuse of Diplomatic Immunity. London: W.H. Allen. 106.

[2] Nelson, Christine M. 1988. “‘Opening’ Pandora’s Box: The Status of the Diplomatic Bag in International Relations.” Fordham International Law Journal 12 (3): 494. http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1218&context=ilj.

[3] Nelson, Christine M. 1988. “‘Opening’ Pandora’s Box: The Status of the Diplomatic Bag in International Relations.” Fordham International Law Journal 12 (3): 507-509. http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1218&context=ilj.

[4] Akinsanya, Adeoye. 1985. “The Dikko Affair and Anglo-Nigerian Relations.” British Institute of International and Comparative Law 34 (3): 602; Siollun, Max. 2012. “Umaru Dikko, the Man Who Was Nearly Spirited Away in a Diplomatic Bag.” The Independent, August 20. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/umaru-dikko-the-man-who-was-nearly-spirited-away-in-a-diplomatic-bag-8061664.html.

[5] Akinsanya, Adeoye. 1985. “The Dikko Affair and Anglo-Nigerian Relations.” British Institute of International and Comparative Law 34 (3): 602; Last, Alex. 2012. “The Foiled Nigerian Kidnap Plot.” BBC News, November 11, sec. Africa. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20211380.

[6] Akinsanya, Adeoye. 1985. “The Dikko Affair and Anglo-Nigerian Relations.” British Institute of International and Comparative Law 34 (3): 602; Last, Alex. 2012. “The Foiled Nigerian Kidnap Plot.” BBC News, November 11, sec. Africa. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20211380; Siollun, Max. 2012. “Umaru Dikko, the Man Who Was Nearly Spirited Away in a Diplomatic Bag.” The Independent, August 20. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/umaru-dikko-the-man-who-was-nearly-spirited-away-in-a-diplomatic-bag-8061664.html.

[7] “16kg of Cocaine Seized at UN’s New York HQ in Mailbags from Mexico… after Security Staff Spotted the Dodgy Logo.” 2012. Daily Mail, January 28. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2092552/Cocaine-seized-UN-New-York-headquarters-16kg-diplomatic-pouch.html; “Cocaine Shipment Found at United Nations in Fake Diplomatic Pouch.” 2012. Fox News. January 26. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/01/26/cocaine-shipment-found-at-united-nations-in-fake-diplomatic-pouch/.

[8] Marks, Alexandra. 2005. “Guess What Doesn’t Get Screened by Airlines? Diplomatic Pouches.” Christian Science Monitor, September 14. http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0914/p04s01-usfp.html.

 

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Mila Johns is a researcher and project manager at the Unconventional Weapons and Technology (UWT) Research Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), where she investigates and analyzes mass-casualty terrorism, transnational criminal organizations, and a variety of other open source research projects. Mila earned a B.A. in Government & Politics, with a concentration in Persian Studies, from the University of Maryland, College Park and a Masters of International Affairs, specializing in Comparative and Regional Studies of the Middle East, with a minor in Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, from American University. Her research interest includes terrorism and society; violent groups and movements; counter-terrorism; chemical and biological threats; and radiological and nuclear threats. Her career interests include research and policy relating to Iran, China, the Middle East, open source data, terrorism, intelligence, and social media.