FP Explainer

So, How Do You Expel an Ambassador, Anyway?

Just tell 'em to get packing.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday took the dramatic step of expelling Zuheir Jabbour, chargé d'affaires at the Syrian embassy in Washington, in response to last week's massacre of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla. Jabbour has been Syria's top diplomat in the United States since the ambassador, Imad Moustapha, left under somewhat mysterious circumstances last year. The move was coordinated with the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, all of whom have either expelled their Syrian ambassadors or announced that they will do so. The move represents a further deterioration in relations between the United States and Syria following the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in February. But how big a deal is it, really, to expel a diplomat?

It depends on why you're expelling them. The 1961 Vienna Treaty on Diplomatic Relations, which codifies concepts such as diplomatic immunity and the inviolability of embassies, gives states quite a bit of leeway on kicking out diplomats. Article 9 states, "The receiving state may at any time and without having to explain its decision, notify the sending state that the head of the mission or any member of the diplomatic staff of the mission is persona non grata or that any other member of the staff of the mission is not acceptable. In any such case, the sending state shall, as appropriate, either recall the person concerned or terminate his functions with the mission."

Although it's not strictly required, the host country's foreign minister will often call in embassy officials to tell them why they've been given the boot. For instance, while serving walking papers to U.S. Ambassador Richard Melton in 1988, the Nicaraguan foreign minister took the opportunity to inform him that the gesture was "nothing compared to the systematic policy of murder and terror that Mr. Reagan's government has carried out against Nicaragua.'' In 2008, Belarus's Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. chargé d'affaires Jonathan Moore and handed him a list of 10 U.S. diplomats who had been declared personae non gratae in response to U.S. sanctions.

Most countries give banished envoys 72 hours to leave the country. (According to the State Department, that's how long Jabbour has to get out of town.) In the Belarus incident, embassy staffers waited until the last hour before crossing the border into Lithuania in hopes that a deal could be reached.

Things don't always work out quite so neatly. Former Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy was back in Washington in September 2008 when he received a call from the State Department operations center informing him that he had been expelled.

"My expulsion was announced on television by President [Hugo] Chávez himself in an epithet-filled public speech to his supporters," he remembers. "He announced that I had been expelled 'in solidarity' with the decision made by Bolivian President Evo Morales to expel my colleague Phil Goldberg."

Though Duddy's expulsion was not directly linked to any of his own actions, he recalls being warned by Venezuelan officials in the weeks prior that he could be PNG'd because of remarks he had made to the media about the Venezuelan government's unwillingness to cooperate on combating drug trafficking. As he was already out of the country when he heard the news of his expulsion, he didn't have the customary 72 hours to gather his possessions and it was several weeks before his wife was allowed to return to Caracas to pack up the couple's things.

Later, when diplomatic relations between the two countries were normalized in 2009, Duddy, now a visiting senior lecturer in international studies at Duke University, became the first U.S. ambassador ever to return to the same post in a country where he or she had been declared persona non grata.

Expulsions aren't always politically motivated. For instance, if an official enjoying diplomatic immunity is accused of a serious crime, expulsion is usually the host country's only recourse. Earlier this month, for instance, the Philippines expelled a Panamanian embassy official accused of rape. It's U.S. policy in such cases to first request that the sending country waive immunity, then proceed with expulsion if it doesn't.

Sometimes an official will be expelled when, in the view of the host government, he or she oversteps his or her diplomatic role. In January 2012, the Obama administration expelled the Venezuelan consul general in Miami over allegations that she had discussed possible cyberattacks on U.S. soil while stationed in Mexico. President Rafel Correa's government in Ecuador expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges in 2011 over comments about corruption revealed in a WikiLeaks cable. (Expelling U.S. diplomats is something of a habit for Correa.) Malawi expelled Britain's ambassador over another WikiLeaks cable, in which he made disparaging comments about the country's president.

At other times, as in Duddy's case, the expulsion has nothing to do with the diplomat in question, but is merely a way of protesting the sending country's policies. It's also common for countries to respond to the expulsion of their ambassador with an expulsion of their own. These tit-for-tat exchanges were so common during the Cold War that a British insurance company even offered persona non grata policies to Western diplomats stationed in Moscow to help them recoup the costs of Russian lessons, relocation expenses, and other nuisances.

Expelling a diplomat, even an ambassador, is not the same thing as severing diplomatic relations -- a much more dramatic step. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk, for instance, continued to operate with a staff of only four following the mass expulsion in 2008. The chargé d'affaires typically takes charge of an embassy's functions when the ambassador is out of the country for any reason, so is usually in a good position to step in following an expulsion. But in this case, with no ambassador or chargé d'affaires representing Syria in Washington, and no U.S. diplomatic presence at all in Damascus, it seems like unlikely that there will be much of any "relations" to speak of.

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FP Explainer

Can Poor People Open a Swiss Bank Account?

Bad news: You need more than a passport, some pocket change, and a healthy disdain for the IRS.

In launching a new attack ad that dismisses Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a "guy who had a Swiss bank account," the Obama campaign has once again thrust the debate over offshore banking into U.S. political discourse. As the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger noted on Wednesday, the words "Swiss bank account" still carry a stigma even though there's no evidence that Romney -- who revealed back in January that he had failed to disclose $3 million in a since-shuttered account with the Swiss bank UBS -- evaded U.S. taxes on the interest earned by the assets he parked in Switzerland.

"There are only 2 reasons to have a Swiss bank account: hedging against the dollar or avoiding paying fair share in taxes," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt tweeted on Tuesday.

LaBolt, of course, overlooked a third reason for having a Swiss bank account: living in Switzerland. But as for the Obama campaign's broader effort to paint Romney as an out-of-touch corporate raider, is it still fair to associate Swiss bank accounts with lavish yachts, trust funds, or other accoutrements of wealth? Even more to the point, can I -- a young journalist in the United States with minimal savings -- get my own Swiss bank account?

It may have been a cinch a couple of decades ago, but my chances are pretty slim today. Switzerland's reputation -- as a bastion of bank secrecy laws that help unsavory characters conceal their riches -- doesn't really square with reality these days, and that has implications for who is eligible to open a bank account there.

The climate in Switzerland began changing in 1998, when Swiss banks reached a landmark settlement with Holocaust survivors whose families' assets were stolen in World War II and tucked away in vaults in Geneva and Zurich, and later faced criticism for holding the assets of international pariahs such as former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Over the past decade, Swiss banks have increasingly come under pressure to comply with financial sanctions on rogue actors and butted heads with U.S. authorities over abetting tax evaders -- most recently in a case in which a U.S. judge forced the Swiss bank Wegelin to forfeit $16 million.

The upshot of all this is that Switzerland's more than 300 banks are now more selective about which American clients they accept -- and more concerned about complying with U.S. regulations -- than they were a decade ago. In 1997, for example, Fortune magazine informed readers that you can "become the James Bond of your dreams" without opening up an expensive, über-secret "numbered" Swiss bank account, pointing out that banks such as Credit Suisse and the Union Bank of Switzerland (now UBS) permitted Americans to open up a checking account with an initial deposit of as little as $3,500 -- via "fax or even old-fashioned mail service," no less.

Sure, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) says that it's still possible "in principle" for any adult to open an account at a Swiss bank (ideally in person) so long as the person verifies his or her identity with a valid passport and presents documents that demonstrate who owns the deposited funds and where they originated. (Note: When you arrive in Zurich, the bank's compliance officials will probably want to make sure that your assets don't stem from criminal activities and that you're not a so-called "politically-exposed person" -- think a Qaddafi -- or someone with close ties to such a figure.)

I'm not, of course. But SBA spokesperson Sindy Schmiegel Werner explained that small Swiss retail banks are still unlikely to grant me a simple checking or savings account because securing my deposit just isn't worth incurring the expenses involved in complying with the regulations of multiple jurisdictions -- costs that are only rising with new laws such as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in 2010. When big Swiss banks offer accounts to U.S.-based clients these days, it's typically in the form of private banking and wealth management services for rich Americans.

Take UBS, for example. The Swiss bank ended all cross-border business with the United States in 2009 after reaching a settlement with the U.S. government in a tax-evasion investigation. Now, according to UBS Wealth Management spokesperson Yves Kaufmann, the only way U.S. citizens living in the United States can open a bank account with UBS is through its Swiss Financial Advisers (SFA) unit. Kaufmann notes that prospective clients for the bank's wealth management arm must have roughly $1 million in investable assets and that U.S. citizens who participate in SFA often do so as a way to diversify their assets outside the United States. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that UBS's U.S. wealth management business more than doubled new assets from clients in the first quarter of 2012, indicating that the "bank's strategy of shifting its focus to managing assets for wealthy clients and reducing risk is starting to pay off."

But if new regulations mean that Swiss bank accounts don't hold as much allure for American tax cheats anymore, there seems to be another solution that's coming into vogue. According to a Bloomberg report on Tuesday, there's a sevenfold increase in Americans renouncing their U.S. citizenship since 2008:

The U.S., the only nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that taxes citizens wherever they reside, is searching for tax cheats in offshore centers, including Switzerland, as the government tries to curb the budget deficit. Shunned by Swiss and German banks and facing tougher asset-disclosure rules under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, more of the estimated 6 million Americans living overseas are weighing the cost of holding a U.S. passport.

In other words, we could have a larger problem than wealthy Americans such as Mitt Romney stashing money in Swiss bank accounts. They might just pack up and head off to Switzerland for good. Maybe that's what the Obama campaign was hoping for?

Thanks to Yves Kaufmann, spokesperson for UBS Wealth Management, and Sindy Schmiegel Werner, spokesperson for the Swiss Bankers Association.

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