State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that the agency’s lawyers “would certainly … be looking at” the possibility that, in failing to prevent physical attacks on American diplomats and their families, Cuba may have violated the 1961 Vienna Convention.
The Vienna Convention demands all host countries do their utmost to protect foreign diplomats from attack. The State Department has withdrawn all non-essential staff from its embassy in Havana, citing a series of unexplained ailments suffered by at least 22 individuals working there, and warned all U.S. citizens to avoid Cuba. The State Department has begun referring to the incidents causing the ailments as “attacks” and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from U.S. soil on Tuesday.
Cuba denies any involvement in the attacks and, for the first time on Tuesday, denied the existence of the incidents entirely.
During the press briefing Tuesday, a reporter asked Nauert what the communist Castro regime would have to do to ensure the safety of Americans on their soil, given that they had likely already provided “full assurances” they could protect the diplomats.
“Let me go back to the Vienna Conventions,” Nauert replied. “And the Vienna Conventions calls for the host country—Cuba, in this example—to ensure that our diplomats and our diplomatic community is safe. Cuba is not living up to that. We cannot continue to allow our personnel to serve in Cuba when they are very clearly in harm’s way.”
Asked directly whether Cuba has violated the Vienna Convention requiring the protection of diplomats, Nauert replied that she was not an attorney, so she could not definitively weigh in. “I think that would certainly be something that our lawyers would be looking at,” she replied. “I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to delve into that area, but they do have a responsibility and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Nauert also stated that Cuba was “clearly not able to make sure our people are safe.”
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez responded to the expulsion of Cuban embassy staff on Tuesday by accusing the United States of fabricating the incidents entirely. “The reality is that there is not a single shred of evidence regarding the occurrence of the alleged incidents, or their causes, or their origins, like the State Department tongue-twister [statement announcing withdrawal] makes evident,” Rodríguez told reporters.
He went on to challenge the “seriousness” of the U.S. investigation on the matter and call the State Department’s claims of attacks “science fiction.”
The State Department has not accused Cuba of attacking the agents itself and has not provided any specifics on the attacks. News reports have described the attacks as executed with sonic devices and causing concussion-like symptoms such as headaches and nausea, significant hearing loss, and brain damage. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson only began using the term “attacks,” instead of the previously used “incidents,” over the past month. The State Department has confirmed they have evidence of the attacks beginning in November 2016.
“The decision to call them attacks reflects that there’s been a consistent pattern of our people being affected, and there’s no other conclusion that we could draw,” a State Department official told reporters Tuesday, refusing to name Cuba as the culprit.
The 1961 Vienna Convention, to which Cuba is a signatory, requires states hosting diplomats to “treat [a diplomatic agent] with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.” It continues to impose a ban on arbitrary searches or other violations on the diplomatic mission, and adds, “The private residence of a diplomatic agent shall enjoy the same inviolability and protection as the premises of the mission.”
“The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity,” it also ascribes.
Violations of the convention can be brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the main court of the United Nations. The ICJ only sees cases between party nations; cases of violations of international law—typically war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide—by individuals typically go to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN has no way of enforcing ICJ verdicts.