The Issues Involved in Using the “Persona Non-Grata” Option

The Issues Involved in Using the “Persona Non-Grata” Option
Embassy of China, Ottawa Wikipedia (Text) CC BY-SA

Recent controversies involving Chinese diplomatic and consular personnel in Canada have again raised the thorny issue of declaring foreign diplomats “persona non grata,” thereby throwing them out of Canada for their transgressions. The “PNG” concept is a reflexive, almost automatic demand by opposition political parties and some individuals in the Canadian “think-tank” community.  In weighing its utility, it’s worth balancing the stakes for Canada over the long run and the merits or demerits of using the right to expel diplomats for anything less than extraordinary reasons.

The right to expel diplomatic and consular personnel is entrenched in international law and practice in two documents, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.  Both conventions contain provisions allowing “receiving states” to declare a diplomatic or consular representative of a “sending state” persona non grata.  Detailed procedures vary from state to state, but they generally involve sending a note communicating the decision and giving the receiving state a deadline for having its personnel leave the country (usually around 48 hours).  The concept is simple, and there is no court of appeal.

How does this work in practice? Canadian agencies watch the activities of numerous diplomats and consular officials in Ottawa and across the country.  Some diplomatic agents in embassies or consulates are members of foreign espionage services. Some are assigned to track the activities of their diaspora communities in Canada.  Some are also involved in illegally selling alcohol, cigarettes and other things imported duty-free by embassies.  Embassy and consulate personnel in Canada run afoul of Canadian agencies on many occasions for many reasons. There is a small but regular flow of ambassadors and high commissioners in and out of the office of the Chief of Protocol in Global Affairs Canada to hear allegations big and small.

When Russia or China has one of their nationals “PNGed,” they almost always retaliate by kicking out the Canadian member of Global Affairs Canada … It knee-caps Canadian diplomacy … and it sometimes hobbles the personnel planning process for years. 

For many reasons, it may be tempting to declare diplomatic personnel persona non grata.  But the Canadian approach has traditionally been cautious, as Melanie Joly suggested recently in a statement that was too vague to be reassuring. Other states react publicly and quickly when their personnel are declared persona non grata and generally respond by kicking an equivalent number of Canada’s diplomatic teams out of their countries. This is the well-known “tit-for-tat” formula; among its most avid practitioners are China and Russia.  It doesn’t matter whether the Canadian side has chosen the PNG route for good reasons, after careful study, against an individual whose transgressions are clear. The offending state resents the publicity more than the precise accusations, and it has the legal right to kick out a Canadian in retaliation without citing reasons.  

There are practical difficulties for Canada in the “tit-for-tat” game.  The Canadian diplomatic service has small numbers who speak difficult languages like Mandarin and Russian. The few now serving have generally learned their languages over a costly and careful preparatory period. They form part of a generational planning process to staff embassies abroad (a requirement that GAC has neglected through reductions in foreign-language training in the past two decades).  Moreover, Canada has very small numbers of Canadians in its embassies.  It relies on “locally engaged staff” for much of its work. These are Russian nationals in Moscow or Chinese nationals in Beijing, to whom diplomatic conventions don’t apply.  Russia and China, in contrast, don’t use Canadians at their offices in Canada, relying instead on large national staffs. 

When Russia or China has one of their nationals “PNGed,” they almost always retaliate by kicking out the Canadian member of Global Affairs Canada in Moscow or Beijing with the best competence in Russian or Mandarin or who has the best local contacts because of their language fluency.  In effect, the retaliatory measure is almost always worse for Canada than for the offending country.  It knee-caps Canadian diplomacy because of our small numbers, until an adequate replacement can be put into place, and it sometimes hobbles the personnel planning process for years. The Russians and Chinese, in contrast, can take expulsions in stride.

Within the Canadian government, CSIS, the RCMP and others generally lobby for PNGing the diplomats of other countries, knowing that their own personnel abroad won’t be affected. GAC typically prefers a different route. The head of mission of the offending state is invited into GAC for a confidential chat, and the offences of the relevant diplomat are put on the table. Discussions then ensue on remedies. 

In serious situations where the case is clear, like the situation surrounding the recent Chinese case, Global Affairs would insist that the diplomat leave Canada at the earliest convenient date.  This may involve a formal PNG declaration, as is the case with Mr. Zhao Wei, or a less public route that the offending state accepts, which amounts to an involuntary departure from Canada.  In less serious cases, there might be warnings that repetition would involve expulsion.   The results of low-key, private discussions have generally been satisfactory.  An offending diplomat leaves Canada or, if out of the country already, decides never to return.  No Canadians are expelled from the capital of the offending state. The page is turned, and another chapter begins.

The PNG option may sound satisfying to Canadians and Opposition critics.  But it rarely addresses the real issues, which are grounded in the policies of certain countries that send representatives abroad with instructions antithetical to Canadian interests. It may change the faces of the offending parties over the short term, but it won’t change policy. And it’s the nuclear option that almost always produces results contrary to Canada’s best long-term interests.  

Russia and China are two states that consistently refuse to acknowledge guilt, but they know reality. Two of those realities cut in different directions. One is that Canada cannot tolerate diplomatic activity that violates fundamental Canadian values; the other reality is that we still require a mutually-acceptable level of diplomatic communication between Canada and other states, even in the worst of times. 

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