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Diplomatic Flag Usage

Last modified: 2023-07-03 by
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There are effectively no hard-and-fast rules regarding the usage of flags among the diplomatic community. There are a lot of accepted norms and conventions, however.

The only still-relevant mention of flag usage by diplomats is Article 20 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. In it, it is affirmed that diplomatic missions and their heads, (ie., most often Ambassadors or High Commissioners), have the right to use their nation's flag and emblem on the premises of the diplomatic mission, (ie., the Chancery), as well as at the Head of Mission's official residence. It also affirms the Head of Mission's right to display his flag on his/her means of transport, (note: NOT just cars).

That's all there is as far as the letter-of-the-law is concerned. With regard to generally accepted practice, (ie., unwritten conventions), the following may be asserted.

The Head of Mission's right to fly a flag on his/her means of transport, is generally inherited by the Acting Head of Mission, (ie., "Charge d'affaires"), in the former's absence, only when the Charge is making an official visit, (but the Head of Mission always flies the flag on his/her car, even when conducting unofficial -- indeed, even mundane -- business, such as shopping).

There is nothing in the almost universally accepted Geneva Protocols which compels a diplomatic mission to display a flag: only the right to do so if they so choose.

It is also the general practice to follow the lead of the host country with regard to half-masting of flags during periods of mourning. Usually the host government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (or whatever), will formally inform the diplomatic community that they intend to invoke a period of national mourning from time/date 'X' to time/date 'Y', with the implication being, "we would consider it a great favour if you too flew your flags at half mast for this period". When a leading national of a mission's country dies, the mission involved follows the same mourning practices as back home, (and specific instructions in this regard are usually forwarded from headquarters). It is up to other missions/nations to decide whether of not to follow suit.

By way of a somewhat related personal anecdote, I remember when living in Damascus, Syria, a minor kurfuffle was created when a Canadian military officer became head of the UN Observer (ie., "Peacekeeping") Mission in the Golan Heights, (members of which are accredited in the same manner as UN "diplomats", to both belligerents, -- in this case Syria and Israel). Since he was a Canadian, legally constituted as the head of a diplomatic mission, he claimed the right to display the Canadian Flag on his car. Well... we had to point out to him that, although he indeed was a Canadian, he was NOT/NOT there as a representative of the Canadian Government, but of the UN, so if he flew any flag at all, it would have to be the UN's.

Glen Hodgins, 1998-04-02

Slightly different rules apply to diplomatic missions (embassies) and consular offices (consulates-general, consulates, etc.). As I understand it, a diplomatic mission is entirely exempt from the jurisdiction of the host country and no host country law or rule requiring the display of the host country's flag could be applied to it, let alone enforced.

A consulate is immune from local jurisdiction for all acts connected with its official duties. This would seem to include the choice of what flags are displayed at the consulate. But article 29 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which deals with the right to display the sending state's flag says, "3. In the exercise of the right accorded by this Article regard shall be had to the laws, regulations and usages of the receiving State." So it seems that, in principle, a receiving state could require the display of its own flag along with that of the sending state, and the sending state would have to "have regard to" that rule. But in treaty- speak, "regard shall be had to" does not necessarily mean the rule has to be obeyed--and the receiving state couldn't actually enforce the requirement because of the immunity of the consular officers and premises. My impression would be that the laws, regulations, and usages envisioned by the convention are mainly things like displaying the flag on holidays, half-masting it during periods of mourning, and perhaps restrictions on the height of the pole or the size of the flag, and that disputes would be resolved diplomatically.
Joe McMillan, 26 July 2003

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