The complexities of protecting citizens abroad

By Suzanne Akila

The protection of citizens abroad evokes many ideas about citizenship, values, foreign relations, human rights, diplomacy and law.

While many people may agree it is important to protect citizens outside of their country of nationality, the nature of the harm and the method for achieving this is often contested.

Moreover, when these issues arise, they can be controversial and touch on sensitive international relationships.

In some cases, the harm an individual experiences abroad can reach into the nerve centre of national values.

Is it acceptable for a citizen to be tortured abroad?

What about if a citizen faced criminal charges for offences that do not exist at home?

What if the individual is a known figure or a child? Is a citizen abroad receiving privileged treatment compared to those in similar circumstances domestically?

In the heat of these debates, amidst the political exchanges, core questions about the phenomenon of protecting citizens abroad go unanswered.

What does it really mean to protect a citizen abroad?

Who are the actors involved in the protection of citizens?

The meaning of 'protection' changes depending on which part of the world you are in and the specifics of the case at hand.

For some, it relates what is done to prevent harm to citizens when they are in other countries.

For others, it is about what is done in response to harm against a citizen abroad.

This can mean consular assistance, diplomacy or litigation.

For many in the public, particularly in western countries, protection is a concept synonymous with national action.

In some countries, such as Germany, there are constitutional and legislative requirements to provide consular assistance or take action where the life of a citizen is under threat.

Under international law, the protection of citizens abroad relates to remedies for breaches against an individual.