Who, what, why: Is it normal to search politicians and envoys?

John Kerry with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi

US Secretary of State John Kerry was stopped by security staff at Egypt's presidential palace and checked for weapons. Is this normal procedure for the top diplomats and visiting ministers, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

Most of us are used to waiting in long lines to pass through security checks at airports, but a rarefied coterie of politicians and top diplomats are granted freedom from the hands of security staff - or at least they're meant to be. John Kerry was stopped and waved over with a metal detector before meeting the Egyptian president in Cairo, an unusual occurrence.

Kerry is not the first envoy to be stopped by security staff. The United States strip-searched George Fernandes, India's former defence minister, twice on official visits in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2010 officials at an airport in Houston, Texas, stopped India's envoy to the UN and inspected his turban.

The answer

  • Either searching or scanning diplomats is seen as a breach of etiquette
  • Visiting foreign ministers are regarded the same way
  • But most governments reserve the right to do searches

"Diplomats and members of government usually enjoy certain immunities which prevent them from being frisked," says Paul Whiteway, a former UK Foreign Office diplomat and director at Independent Diplomat, an advisory group for diplomatic staff. For high-ranking politicians, even the most cursory security check, such as being passed over by a metal-detecting wand, is seen as as unnecessary an inconvenience as a full body pat-down.

The Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, signed in 1961, outlines procedures that prevent diplomats from being unduly molested. Sixty parties signed the agreement, and 190 nation states have since ratified it, including Egypt. Though foreign ministers are different to resident diplomats, explains Whiteway, the way they're meant to be treated is similar. And a 2002 case at the International Court of Justice set a precedent of inviolability for travelling foreign ministers.

The aim is to allow ministers to travel more quickly and easily, and to protect any secret documents they carry from being whisked away. "But being frisked does happen - it's just regarded as bad form," admits Whiteway.

Although it is frowned upon, and a theoretical breach of the Vienna convention, countries do reserve the right to stop and search politicians on security grounds. But they tend to do so only when they want to send a message to their guests. "It could be seen as a concerted effort at discourtesy; putting a foreign power in its place," notes Whiteway, who was once stopped at an airport in Chile by overzealous police officers and had his luggage X-rayed.

"If the authorities demand it, there's very little you can do about it except take a deep breath and comply."

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