Closed for Jihad

What happens to an embassy’s staff when the building closes?

The U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen

The United States Embassy in Yemen reopened Tuesday after shutting down two days earlier in response to “ongoing threats” from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Where does diplomatic staff go when an embassy temporarily closes?

Nowhere, usually. When an embassy shutters just for a couple of days, its staffers—Americans and local embassy employees—simply stay home. (Employees do not necessarily live within the embassy compound. *) Meanwhile, the embassy stops granting visas and other services. The goal is to keep people from gathering at the embassy, thereby making it a target for terrorists.

There are more drastic forms of embassy shutdowns. Depending on the perceived threat level, the State Department might initiate “authorized” or “voluntary” departures, wherein embassy employees are given the option of going home, and family members or guests are encouraged to do so. Alternately, if an attack seems quite likely, the state department might order the departure of all nonessential staffers, stripping the embassy down to just a few people. For example, most of the U.S. embassy staff in Cyprus was relocated to Beirut in 1967 when a Turkish invasion looked imminent. The most dramatic form of shutdown is an evacuation, when officials deem the embassy too dangerous for anyone to stay. This rarely happens outside all-out war. The United States famously pulled everyone out of its embassy in South Vietnam in 1975, in Kabul in 1989, and in Somalia in 1991. In those cases, everyone returned to the United States.

An embassy is never officially closed unless the two countries break off diplomatic relations. In that case, staffers are usually reassigned to other missions. The embassy itself remains the property of the country that occupied it. (After all, the visitor country paid for it.) While there’s nothing to stop the host country from seizing the building, they typically maintain it in case the two countries make amends. For example, the Iranian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., remains unoccupied.

When a country shutters an embassy for good, it arranges for another nation to act as a “protector” for its citizens. Tourists who need help go to that embassy or consulate instead. Americans in Tehran, for example, are told to go to the Swiss embassy for any travel needs. In Iraq, before the first Gulf War, Americans turned to Belgium for diplomatic help; after the war, Poland had the go-to embassy.

Bonus: Does a U.S. embassy remain “American soil” after it shuts down? No—because it never was. Despite popular belief, an American embassy is not part of the territory of the United States. For example, a child born on embassy or consulate premises isn’t automatically a U.S. citizen. (Other circumstances, such as having one American parent, might qualify him or her. *) Nor do U.S. laws apply inside the embassy. Rather, the laws of the host state apply. There are significant exceptions: Ambassadors don’t have to pay taxes, for instance, and there’s no local property tax on an embassy. Ambassadors also enjoy diplomatic immunity, which protects them from most local laws. In addition, receiving states cannot enforce their own laws on embassy premises, since, according to the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, they can’t enter a foreign embassy without permission. But they can declare an ambassador persona non grata and send him or her home.

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Explainer thanks Ambassador Thomas Boyatt; Clemens Kochinke of Berliner, Corcoran, and Rowe; Ronald Neumann of the American Academy of Diplomacy; and Ambassador Ronald Spiers.

Correction, Jan. 7, 2009: This article originally suggested that a child born abroad needs two American parents s to gain U.S. citizenship. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) It also stated incorrectly that employees usually live in residences provided by the host country. Although employees do often live off the embassy compound, the host country rarely provides the accommodations, and never free of charge, as implied. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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