Protecting power

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Between 1961 and 2015, Switzerland was the protecting power of the United States in Cuba. The United States Interests Section in Havana, although it was staffed by personnel of the United States Foreign Service, was formally a section of the Embassy of Switzerland.[1]

A protecting power is a state which somehow protects another state, and/or represents the interests of the protected state's citizens in a third state.

In diplomatic usage, "protecting power" refers to a relationship that may occur when two sovereign states do not have diplomatic relations. Either country may request a third party, with whom both countries have diplomatic relations, to use its "good offices" and act on its behalf as the protecting power.[2]

In the host country, the protecting power is empowered to represent the property and interests of the protected country. This may extend to caring for the diplomatic property of its protectee or acting as consular officers on behalf of its citizens. If the two countries are at war, the protecting power will also inquire into the welfare of prisoners of war.

The role of "protecting power" originally developed in time of war and is formalized in the Geneva Conventions. Diplomatic relations are automatically broken when war is declared, making it necessary to appoint protecting powers. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations also provide for a similar status in time of peace, although they do not use the "protecting power" terminology.[3]


Between 1991 and 2015, the Swiss Embassy in Washington DC also officially represented Cuba's interests in the United States.[1]
President Obama thanks the Swiss government for assistance in Iran (2016)

The protecting power is appointed by the protected state and must also be acceptable to the host state. It must therefore maintain diplomatic relations with both states. In time of war, the Geneva Conventions also require that the protecting power be a neutral country. The specific responsibilities and arrangements are agreed between the protecting power, the protected power, and the host country.

In a comprehensive mandate, the protecting power carries out most functions on behalf of the protected state. This is necessary when relations are so tense or hostile that the sparring nations have no diplomatic or consular staff posted on each other's territory. For example, Sweden carries out limited consular functions for the United States, Canada, and Australia in North Korea.

In other cases, the two nations have broken diplomatic relations, but are willing to exchange personnel on an informal basis. The protecting power serves as the mechanism for facilitating this exchange. The original embassy remains staffed by nationals of the protected state but is formally termed an "interests section" of the protecting power. For example, the Cuban Interests Section was staffed by Cubans and occupied the old Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., but it was formally a section of the Swiss Embassy to the United States.


The protecting power relationship originated in the Franco-Prussian War, when the belligerents expelled each other's diplomats and placed restrictions on enemy aliens. This made it necessary for belligerents to appoint protecting powers to represent their citizens' interests in enemy countries.[4]

The practice became customary in international law but was not formalized until the Geneva Convention of 1929. The lack of formalization forced arrangements to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. During the Second Boer War, the British Empire selected the United States to be its protecting power in the Boer Republics, but the Boers refused to accept this status or to appoint a protecting power of their own. However, the Boers did allow the United States to look after the interests of British and Boer prisoners of war.[4]

There is no requirement that the same protecting power be selected by both countries, although this is convenient for the purposes of communication. Each may select its own protecting power, provided that the choice is acceptable to the other state. There is also no requirement that a country select only one protecting power in the receiving country. During the Second World War, Japan appointed Spain, Sweden and Switzerland to be its protecting powers in the United States.[4]

Second World War[edit]

During the Second World War, Axis-leaning Spain and the Nazi-occupied Netherlands were unable to serve the role of protecting power that they had served in the First World War. As a result, Switzerland and Sweden became the most popular choices for protecting power. Switzerland formally undertook 219 mandates for 35 states, and represented another eight states unofficially, while Sweden accepted 114 mandates for 28 states.[5] Switzerland and Sweden both chose to remain non-aligned in the Cold War and refused to join any military alliances, leading to their continued popularity as protecting powers.

Current relationships[edit]

Protected state Protecting power Receiving state Mandate Notes
 United States  Czech Republic  Syria N/A [3]
 Australia  Hungary [6]
 Canada [7]
 Italy  Iran Comprehensive [8]
 Iran  Oman  Canada
 Pakistan  United States N/A See also: Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the United States[9]
 Australia  Sweden  North Korea Comprehensive [10]
 United States [3][10]
 Georgia   Switzerland  Russia Interests section [11]
 Iran  Egypt [12]
 Russia  Georgia [12][13]
 United States  Iran Comprehensive, with an interests section [3][12]

Past relationships[edit]

Before the Second World War[edit]

Year begun Year ended Protected state Protecting power Receiving state Cause of breach Notes
1870 1871  France  United Kingdom  Germany Franco-Prussian War [4]
Baden   Switzerland  France [12]
 Germany  Russia [4]
 United States
1894 1895  China  Japan First Sino-Japanese War
 Japan  China
1897  Ottoman Empire  Germany  Greece Greco-Turkish War (1897)
 Greece  United Kingdom  Ottoman Empire
1898  United States  United Kingdom  Spain Spanish–American War
 Spain  Austria-Hungary  United States
 United States  United Kingdom  Spain
1904 1905  Russia  France  Japan Russo-Japanese War [14]
 Japan  United States  Russia
1911 1912  Italy  Germany  Ottoman Empire Italo-Turkish War [4]
 Ottoman Empire  Italy
1912 1913  Montenegro  France Balkan Wars
1918 1924  United Kingdom  Netherlands  Soviet Union Bolshevik Revolution [15]
1929  China  Germany Sino-Soviet conflict (1929) [4]
 Soviet Union  China

Since the Second World War[edit]

Year begun Year ended Protected state Protecting power Receiving state Cause of breach Notes
1961 2015  United States   Switzerland  Cuba Cuban Revolution See United States Interests Section in Havana.[3][12][1]
1975 1999  Portugal  Netherlands  Indonesia Indonesian invasion of East Timor [16]
 Indonesia  Thailand  Portugal
1976 1977  United Kingdom  France  Uganda N/A [17]
1979 N/A  Sweden  Iran Iranian Revolution N/A
1980 1988  Canada  Netherlands Canadian Caper [citation needed]
1982 1990  Argentina  Brazil  United Kingdom Falklands War [18]
 United Kingdom   Switzerland  Argentina
1984 N/A  Italy  Libya Murder of Yvonne Fletcher [19]
 Libya  Saudi Arabia  United Kingdom [20]
1989  United Kingdom  Sweden  Iran Salman Rushdie affair N/A
1990 Iraq  Jordan  United Kingdom Gulf War [citation needed]
 United States  Poland Iraq
1991 2015  Cuba   Switzerland  United States Cuban Revolution See Cuban Interests Section.[12][1]
1995 1999  Canada  United States  Nigeria Execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa [citation needed]
N/A N/A  Yugoslavia  Cyprus Yugoslav Wars
2006  United States  Belgium  Libya N/A
2011  Turkey 2011 military intervention in Libya [21]
2012  Poland  Syria Syrian Civil War Mandate transferred to the Czech Republic.[22][23]

Consular services[edit]

Certain countries may have agreements to provide limited consular services to the citizens of other countries. This does not necessarily constitute a protecting power relationship, as the host country may not have formally agreed, and there may in fact be diplomatic relations between the host country and the third country, but no physical representation. Without the agreement of the host country, consular officials in this role may not be recognized as representing the interests of another, and be limited to a "good offices"[citation needed] role.

  • The United States provides consular services to citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau, which formerly were part of a US Trust Territory.[citation needed]
  • Certain Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, have agreements in certain countries to provide consular services for citizens of the other countries where they do not have physical representation. The United Kingdom provides consular assistance to Canadians abroad where there is no Canadian mission, as stated in each Canadian passport. Canada provides consular assistance to Australian citizens to several states in Latin America and Africa; while Australian diplomatic missions reciprocate in several Asia-Pacific states.[24][25]
  • Under Article 20 section 2c of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union citizens of European Union countries may request consular services at the missions of other EU countries when their home country does not have a mission locally.[26]
  • In 2006, the governments of Montenegro and Serbia adopted the Memorandum of Agreement between the Republic of Montenegro and the Republic of Serbia on Consular Protection and Services to the Citizens of Montenegro. By this agreement, Serbia, through its network of diplomatic and consular missions, provides consular services to the Montenegrin citizens on the territory of states in which Montenegro has no missions of its own.[27]

Other meanings[edit]

  • Historically a protecting power held a permanent protectorate over a weaker state, which in practice could constitute a form of colonial domination, in the logic of indirect rule.[citation needed]
  • The term "friendly protection" also applied to "guarantor" state(s) vowing to prevent the protected state (or a specific part) being overrun by a third party.
  • Protecting power has a distinct and separate meaning under the Geneva Conventions for protection of civilians in times of war.[28]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d (French) Stéphane Bussard, "La voix suisse des États-Unis à Cuba se tait", Le Temps, Monday 20 July 2015.
  2. ^ Article 12(1) of Geneva Convention IV 1949
  3. ^ a b c d e U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual. 7 FAM 1020. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Levie, Howard (1961). "Prisoners of War and the Protecting Power". American Journal of International Law 55. 
  5. ^ Schelbert, Leo (2014). "Good offices". Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 153. ISBN 9781442233522. 
  6. ^ Lee Berthiaume (March 8, 2012). "Australia secures assistance for citizens still in Syria". Postmedia News. 
  7. ^ Lee Berthiaume (March 7, 2012). "Australians left scrambling as Canada shutters embassy". Postmedia News. 
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ "Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran". Embassy of Pakistan, Washington, D.C. 
  10. ^ a b "About the Embassy". Embassy of Sweden, Pyongyang. In particular, Sweden functions as Protective Power for the United States, Australia and Canada, including consular responsibility for citizens. 
  11. ^ "Georgia's Interests Section of the Swiss Confederation's Embassy to the Russian Federation". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (4 April 2012). "Protective power mandates". 
  13. ^ "Embassy of Switzerland in Georgia, Russian Federation Interests Section". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. 
  14. ^ "Treaty of Portsmouth ending the Russo-Japanese War". Such ratification shall be with as little delay as possible, and in any case no later than fifty days from the date of the signature of the treaty, to be announced to the Imperial Governments of Japan and Russia respectively through the French Minister at Tokio and the Ambassador of the United States at St. Petersburg, and from the date of the latter of such announcements shall in all its parts come into full force. 
  15. ^ "Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 4th ed. - Online updating pages". pp. 218–219. Britain had not recognised the Bolshevik government formed in the previous October (it did not extend de jure recognition until the beginning of 1924), and in February 1918 withdrew its diplomatic staff from the embassy in Petrograd, handing protection of its interests to the Dutch Legation. 
  16. ^ Indonesia names envoy to Lisbon, Jakarta Post, November 16, 2000
  17. ^ The British Interests Section in Kampala, 1976-7
  18. ^ Argentina and Britain Move To Restore Diplomatic Ties, New York Times, September 1, 1989
  19. ^ British Diplomats, Hansard, HC Deb 25 April 1984 vol 58 cc718-9
  20. ^ Africa Research Bureau. (1984). Africa Research Bulletin. Africa Research. p. 7228
  21. ^ "Turkey to serve as protecting power for U.S. in Libya". CNN. 24 August 2011. 
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ DFAIT Canada
  25. ^ DFAT Australia
  26. ^ Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Europa
  27. ^
  28. ^ "From Geneva to Sri Lanka". International Relations and Security Network. ReliefWeb. 12 August 2009. Retrieved 2010-09-14. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is the official protecting power of the Geneva Conventions, has just put forward guidance on what it means to take part in hostilities, according to their understanding. 

External links[edit]