- The Japanese embassy: Will it serve saki? Will you get carded?
Tomorrow is the second weekend of Passport D.C., in which embassies open their doors to us Ugly Americans to teach us a little bit of their culture (check out our photos from last weekend here!). But before you learn Argentinian tango and how to play an Indonesian angklung – two of the many cultural offerings of this weekend – there's a pertinent myth to debunk: That when you set foot on an embassy's grounds, you're on foreign soil, beyond the reach of American law.
Each year of Passport D.C., there are always embassy-hoppers who, when walking through the doors of the House of Sweden or the embassy of Nicaragua or wherever, will announce, "Look, sweetie! We're in Kazakhstan now!" The myth is especially pervasive among college students in D.C. universities, where college students who are not of legal age believe that they can go to embassy events and drink. While it's a courtesy to treat foreign embassies in D.C. as foreign soil, and while they do enjoy certain privileges and immunities, stepping onto the property of the embassy of Trinidad and Tobago is not the same as setting foot on a tiny little slice of Trinidad and Tobago, regardless of those steel drums that will greet you tomorrow. You're still in America, obviously, and American laws still apply on embassy grounds, even if the diplomats within are granted immunity.
Part of the confusion comes from a portion of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (PDF), the treaty that hashed out the rules of diplomatic immunity for officials working in other countries. From Article 22:
1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.
3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.
This essentially means that if a crime were committed on embassy grounds, U.S. police would need to get permission to enter the premises – but once granted that permission, the person who committed the crime, if not a diplomat, could still be prosecuted under American laws. There's plenty in the Vienna Convention about embassies being exempt from taxes and inspection, but nothing about the grounds of those embassies being exempt from U.S. laws. Extraterritorial status could be a logistical imposition in the case of embassies that rent space in a big office, such as the embassy of Liechtenstein, which shares a 2900 K Street office building with the law firm of Katten Munchin Rosenman. Besides, if embassies were subject to the laws of their own countries and not their hosts, there would be tiny zones in America where a person could not relieve himself standing up after 10 p.m., wear hot pink pants after midday on Sunday, or wear a mask, for example – rules that could ruin a great party, right?
So, sorry, college kids! The embassies are not your fraternity row. A good example of foreign embassies enforcing American laws occurred last week in the Polish embassy, where every young person in the line for pierogi and beer was carded, despite the fact that there is no drinking age in Poland (though the minimum age for purchase there is 18). However, in previous Passport D.C. experiences, I have not been carded at the British embassy, the Lithuanian embassy, and others. Even though they might be serving to minors, the embassies that don't card aren't likely to get busted, because American police can't enter without permission. So internationally-minded binge drinking could still occur, if you're lucky, but you could still get in trouble for public intoxication if you manage to overdo it on the Dixie Cup-sized servings of beer. Via the Passport D.C. site, three embassies that will be serving booze include Argentina (wine), the Dominican Republic (rum and beer) and Haiti (Barbancourt rum). Cheers to that – but bring your ID, just in case.