This page is part of © FOTW Flags Of The World website

Diplomatic Flag Usage

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: diplomat | geneva convention | vienna convention |
Links: FOTW homepage | search | disclaimer and copyright | write us | mirrors

See also:

There are effectively no hard-and-fast rules regarding the usage of flags among the diplomatic community. There are a lot of accepted norms and conventions, however.

The only still-relevant mention of flag usage by diplomats is Article 20 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. In it, it is affirmed that diplomatic missions and their heads, (ie., most often Ambassadors or High Commissioners), have the right to use their nation's flag and emblem on the premises of the diplomatic mission, (ie., the Chancery), as well as at the Head of Mission's official residence. It also affirms the Head of Mission's right to display his flag on his/her means of transport, (note: NOT just cars).

That's all there is as far as the letter-of-the-law is concerned. With regard to generally accepted practice, (i.e., unwritten conventions), the following may be asserted.

The Head of Mission's right to fly a flag on his/her means of transport, is generally inherited by the Acting Head of Mission, (ie., "Charge d'affaires"), in the former's absence, only when the Charge is making an official visit, (but the Head of Mission always flies the flag on his/her car, even when conducting unofficial -- indeed, even mundane -- business, such as shopping).

There is nothing in the almost universally accepted Geneva Protocols which compels a diplomatic mission to display a flag: only the right to do so if they so choose.

It is also the general practice to follow the lead of the host country with regard to half-masting of flags during periods of mourning. Usually the host government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (or whatever), will formally inform the diplomatic community that they intend to invoke a period of national mourning from time/date 'X' to time/date 'Y', with the implication being, "we would consider it a great favour if you too flew your flags at half mast for this period". When a leading national of a mission's country dies, the mission involved follows the same mourning practices as back home, (and specific instructions in this regard are usually forwarded from headquarters). It is up to other missions/nations to decide whether of not to follow suit.

By way of a somewhat related personal anecdote, I remember when living in Damascus, Syria, a minor kurfuffle was created when a Canadian military officer became head of the UN Observer (i.e.., "Peacekeeping") Mission in the Golan Heights, (members of which are accredited in the same manner as UN "diplomats", to both belligerents, -- in this case Syria and Israel). Since he was a Canadian, legally constituted as the head of a diplomatic mission, he claimed the right to display the Canadian Flag on his car. Well... we had to point out to him that, although he indeed was a Canadian, he was NOT/NOT there as a representative of the Canadian Government, but of the UN, so if he flew any flag at all, it would have to be the UN's.

Glen Hodgins, 1998-04-02

Slightly different rules apply to diplomatic missions (embassies) and consular offices (consulates-general, consulates, etc.). As I understand it, a diplomatic mission is entirely exempt from the jurisdiction of the host and no host country law or rule requiring the display of the host country's flag could be applied to it, let alone enforced.

A consulate is immune from local jurisdiction for all acts connected with its official duties. This would seem to include the choice of what flags are displayed at the consulate. But article 29 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which deals with the right to display the sending state's flag says, "3. In the exercise of the right accorded by this Article regard shall be had to the laws, regulations and usages of the receiving State." So it seems that, in principle, a receiving state could require the display of its own flag along with that of the sending state, and the sending state would have to "have regard to" that rule. But in treaty- speak, "regard shall be had to" does not necessarily mean the rule has to be obeyed--and the receiving state couldn't actually enforce the requirement because of the immunity of the consular officers and premises. My impression would be that the laws, regulations, and usages envisioned by the convention are mainly things like displaying the flag on holidays, half-masting it during periods of mourning, and perhaps restrictions on the height of the pole or the size of the flag, and that disputes would be resolved diplomatically.
Joe McMillan, 26 July 2003

Diplomatic missions are required by law to apply for planning permission in England and Wales. Bear in mind that many of these buildings, certainly in London, are located in conservation areas and are listed buildings in their own right. Thus, a higher degree of planning control, including the application of the recent advertising regulations in respect of flags and flagpoles, applies.

Recent decisions by Westminster City Council - in whose area in London many of the overseas embassies and high commissions are located - include the proposed felling of the Lawsons Cypress tree at the Swedish Embassy, the extensive and controversial security precautions surrounding the United States Embassy in Grosvenor Square and the works to the sycamore, Holm Oak and Lombardy poplars at the Egyptian Embassy last month.

I spoke with one of the Planning Officers, who has responsibility for taking certain categories of delegated decisions and she told me quite clearly that it was a statutory planning process, i.e. that they do not do it just to stay on friendly terms, but that the diplomatic missions are required by law to make these applications. I asked her was she sure, she said "yes, young man, I have been dealing with these applications for twenty-seven years".

(1) Westminster City Council, Planning Applications Weekly Decision List, Week ending 12 November 2006
(2) ibid., 04 March 2006
(3) ibid., 29 October 2006
All as consulted Westminster City Council web site, <>, 25 April 2007
(4) Telephone call to Westminster City Council planning department, 26 April 2006

Most Government departments, of course, have Crown immunity.
Colin Dobson, 26 April 2007, 5 May 2007

The Straight Dope website has a short piece on the general subject which is rather clear about the issue, and fully supports the Westminster City Council's position:

While some have claimed an embassy is the territory of the country it represents, that theory has been rejected by the courts. For example, Barry Carter and his coauthors, in their textbook on international law, say, 'Contrary to popular belief, however, diplomatic mission and consular post properties are not extensions of the sending state's territory. Both in fact and in law, diplomatic premises are within the territory of the receiving state."

What causes the confusion is the general rule that diplomatic missions are inviolable. That means the receiving state's police can't enter an embassy without the sending state's consent. It doesn't mean the receiving state's laws don't apply there. For example, embassies must comply with local building and fire codes. While those codes can't be enforced directly, the receiving state is authorized to 'withhold benefits' from sending states that do not comply with local laws.

Ned Smith, 5 May 2007

The British Cabinet considered and rejected this course of action in January 1969. In 1965 Rhodesia, (formerly Southern Rhodesia, and now Zimbabwe), had illegally severed its connections with the Crown, and unilaterally declared independence. The Rhodesian Government continued to use Rhodesia House in London, where the Rhodesian flag was flown. Objections were raised in November 1968 when this flag, a pale blue British Ensign, with the shield of the Arms of Southern Rhodesia in the fly, was replaced by a green/white/green tricolour with the full achievement of Arms in the white panel. This was considered to be an illegal flag, but the Rhodesian Government refused to revert to the previous flag, or fly no flag. Having it lowered in return for lowering the Union Jack at the residual mission in Salisbury (now Harare) was considered, but would have meant lowering a flag recognised by Rhodesia as legal and valid, in return for lowering an illegal invalid flag. Rhodesia House had diplomatic immunity and the flag contravened no law. It could be taken down by the police only if it could be shown that "there was a reasonable apprehension of a breach of the peace which could not be contained by other means." Diplomatic immunity could be removed only by an Order in Council which would have required, but not necessarily achieved, the approval of both Houses of Parliament. [National Archives (PRO) CAB 130/410]
David Prothero, 7 May 2007

The situation does, in fact, apparently vary in different parts of the country dependent upon local officers' knowledge of the law? The thing is that national flags (including those of foreign countries, the UJ, the flags of England, Scotland and Wales plus- if I remember rightly - now the EU?) are specifically excluded by law from the 1993 Local Government Regulations under which any Council could previously block the erection of a flag pole. This means that (in this area at least), providing the pole is erected to fly - and flies nothing but - a national flag, the Local Planning Office have actually no power whatever to block its erection or cause it to be removed.
Christopher Southworth, 24 March 2007