Politics

Consular Protection

The world is rightly outraged at how Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed, but I was also horrified by where his murder took place. As the U.S. Consul General in Vladivostok, Russia from 2007-2010 and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico from 2000-2003 I know what a Consulate is supposed to be. It is primarily there to provide for the protection and welfare of fellow citizens in that consular district. Consular protection ranges from advising citizens of potential unrest in the area, to providing an emergency loan if funds run short or a wallet is stolen. We had Americans in prison up and down the Mexican border who we visited every week, providing newspapers and magazines, clean water, and vitamins. Consular officers are often the link between travelers in trouble and their families. So to know that Khashoggi was lured into the Consulate, on the pretext that he was going to receive some sort of service, and then brutally murdered within the Consulate walls sends shivers down my spine.

Recently, governments have also been stripping citizenship for women who joined ISIS. Terrorists certainly deserve no sympathy or quarter but citizenship is not something that should be taken away for bad behavior. Instead, citizens who commit crimes abroad should be brought home to face the courts and pay for their crimes. Hoda Muthana is the presumptive American citizen who wants to return to the United States and take responsibility for her actions. The British woman who wants to return and has also been stripped of citizenship is Shamima Begum, whose lawyer argued on CNN, “We don’t leave children in war zones.” There may be other factors involved —perhaps they renounced citizenship at some point— but in the case of Hoda Muthana, if she was in fact, as claimed, born in the U.S., there would have to be extraordinary circumstances for her not to be an American.

Human rights are often talked about for large classes of people—refugees, migrants, minorities, for example. But human rights are played out everyday at the individual level, often in Consular sections around the world where Consular Officers are trying to do the right thing for their fellow citizens and their governments. It’s not easy. I had a Cuban visa applicant tell me, “If you deny me a visa, I’ll take a raft to Florida, and if I drown you are at fault.” No, I thought, that’s on you. You have to make your own choices. In this case the young Cuban was not a potential political refugee. I turned him down. In another case, I was able to testify on behalf of a Korean-American pastor imprisoned on Sakhalin Island in Russia. He was unfairly imprisoned (in my view) and the Consulate had worked for months to get him out. Finally, authorities said if the Consul General came to his parole hearing, it might make a difference. I went, testified to the good character of the pastor and he was released. One of the guards said, “America. What a country! I can’t imagine my government doing that for me!”

I mentioned that the pastor was Korean-American because he was serving the Korean-speaking community on the now Russian island of Sakhalin. But as a Consular Officer I also have to say that there really are no hyphenated Americans abroad. Yes, we served a lot of Cuban-Americans in Havana and Mexican-Americans on the border, but everyone received the same service. If you have a blue American passport, you are in the club.

Diplomatic immunity can also help citizens. North Koreans, Soviet dissidents, and now Julian Assange have all found refuge in foreign embassies and consulates. We were able to keep a witness safe, one who drug traffickers who encircled our car wanted to get hold of in Mexico, all because the car had diplomatic plates and the drug gang wasn’t sure it wanted to take on the weight of the American government (not to mention the Vienna Convention) over one witness.

My hope is that no matter what country you are from, when you see your flag flying outside of a Consulate somewhere in the world, you will know that that is home, a place you belong, and a place where you can feel safe.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Tom Armbruster

Ambassador Tom Armbruster is a foreign affairs professional currently leading Office of the Inspector General teams to U.S. embassies including Denmark, Colombia, and this spring Chad and Mauritania. Speaking engagements on diplomacy include Cornell University, the Washington International Diplomatic Academy, University of Texas and the Mock World Health Organization. Armbruster served as Ambassador to the Marshall Islands 2012-2106 after postings in Finland, Cuba, Russia, Mexico, and Tajikistan. He is a board member of Strategies for International Development.

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