Protecting inspectors in the field

Aug 24 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Mark Hibbs’ recent post about the risks facing IAEA inspectors in Iran, should Israel decide to attack the country, gives rise to a number of pertinent questions relating to matters of both law and policy. They are not new by any means, but they are nevertheless important.

Broadly speaking, international inspectors are at risk every day at various hotspots around the world. Peacekeepers often risk their lives monitoring the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions or ceasefire agreements. Protection officers risk their lives recording the implementation of protection levels in respect to refugees. Indeed, since 1948, over 3,000 people have lost their lives in the service of the United Nations. As it happens, one of them was a childhood friend of mine, Tobias Boström Renström, who gave his life in the service of peace in the Former Yugoslavia in 1993. We served together, so I was asked to be the family representative at the ceremony where his coffin was flown home to Sweden. I later had to tell his parents about our mission—and why it was important—in the year that followed. Not an easy task for someone in his early twenties.
Since then, I’ve always been a strong believer in international civil (and military) service. I’ve also felt that those who put their lives on the line in the service of peace deserve the strongest protection that can be afforded them.
It is clear that the international organization itself has responsibility for its staff. It will suffer injury in the case of physical injury or death of an inspector (although they are likely to be insured).
The legality of an Israeli strike on Iran would be in serious doubt, and it is likely that it would be widely condemned by the international community (although it is quite possible that the reaction would be milder than the diplomatic storm following Israel’s 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor).
Should an IAEA inspector, for instance, be injured, the organization also has the right to bring a claim against the state that caused the injury (if the injury involved a breach of that state’s international obligations toward the organization). This follows from the 1949 Reparations case in the International Court of Justice.
So, when it comes to international inspectors, it has been customary for states to give warning of an impending attack, allowing the United Nations to at least try to get their people out of harm’s way. If Israel should decide to attack, it could issue such a warning. This, though, would mean that it would at the same time warn Iran of the strike. It is unlikely that it would desire to do this.
Now, what about Iran’s responsibilities to keep the inspectors safe? It is the responsibility of the receiving state to ensure that diplomatic agents, and this includes international inspectors, are protected from physical and material harm. The principal document covering the protection of diplomatic agents—which includes agents of international organizations—is the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The convention applies in times of war, but the responsibility to protect is, naturally, not without limitations.
Should Iran find itself attacked, it would still need to take some steps to ensure the protection of diplomatic agents within its territory. It would, for instance, be required to grant facilities enabling these agents to leave the country. If need be, Iran would need to put transportation at their disposal to do so. If it allows inspectors to be harmed in any way, it would be in breach of the convention. This means that Iran would need to ensure that Agency inspectors have access to appropriate shelter, and that they are guarded against any potential public reaction to air strikes. The protection level afforded should be adjusted to reflect the level of threat.
Paradoxically, if Iran were to, say, strongly advise inspectors against conducting activities at its nuclear sites, international concerns over unsafeguarded materials would immediately flare up. If inspectors say ‘thanks for the advice’ and decide to continue to conduct inspectors, Iran cannot stop them. In other words, if Iran takes appropriate steps to protect the inspectors, but they place themselves in harm’s way nevertheless, it will be without blame.
At the end of the day, there is little one can do to guard against a surprise attack. Iran’s responsibility to protect is not unlimited.  It stands to reason that if Iran lacks the appropriate means to respond to or prevent an incident it will not be breaching its responsibility to protect the inspection team. In other words, no one will expect Iran to be able to stop bombs or missiles targeting facilities where inspectors are present.

Last changed: Aug 24 2012 at 4:46 PM