Questions of how, and when, to protect citizens abroad are complex, writes 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.

A range of mechanisms available

There is a range of mechanisms available to countries to protect a citizen, including diplomatic representations, mediation, arbitration, negotiation, judicial action (usually in the International Court of Justice) and economic measures.

Some countries would also include the use of force in this list.

Protection in international law, often referred to as ‘diplomatic protection’, reflects the proximity of the country and its citizen: a connection of interests, as well as reciprocal rights and duties. Viewed from this perspective, the variation in what protection means makes more sense.

In some countries, citizens expect little from their governments while, in others, public expectation for intervention can be high.

While it is clear countries play an important role in the protection of citizens abroad, an exclusive focus on their actions can obscure the protective behaviour of other actors.

There has been an increase in private actors providing consular and protective services to members of the public in recent years. Specialist consular companies sell their services to travellers. Multinational corporations hire security and risk firms to advise and negotiate difficult situations relating to their staff or clients. Universities create funds for retrieval of researchers in conflict or hostage situations overseas.

Legal and political limits

Of course, civil society actors — particularly human rights organisations — run test litigation, visit prisons, provide legal advice to individuals facing harm abroad and conduct training for countries on how to better respond to requests for assistance.

The reality of protection today is that it is much more complex and involves more actors than most people anticipate or perceive.

There are regulatory pressures on countries to ‘do more’, yet there are legal and political limits on how much they can do. This means other actors are taking up the role of providing protection in some form.

They help to fill a ‘void’ where one exists and often work cooperatively with governments to achieve outcomes that neither actor could obtain alone.

As participation in the protection of citizens abroad grows (and becomes more transparent) the very shape of protection and what it means evolves.

More attention could be paid to these changes by the public and by scholars if we want to understand this important and increasingly prevalent part of public life and international relations.

Suzanne Akila is a PhD candidate specialising in international law and human rights at the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance.

Top image: Saj Shafique/Unsplash

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