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.