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UK diplomatic bags held up at border were sent overland ‘in error’

Diplomatic bags containing official correspondence between London and the Office of the Governor were held up at the border after being sent overland “in error”, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said on Monday.

The bags were stopped by Spanish authorities over a week ago and had not yet been released on Monday.

The decision by Spain to halt the shipment was revealed by the Spanish website Noticias Gibraltar over the weekend.

According to the website, the shipment consisted of several bags weighing 150 kilos in total. The FCDO has not confirmed the contents of the bags.

The bags appear to have been stopped because Spain does not recognise the Office of the Governor as a diplomatic mission, meaning the shipment was not afforded standard diplomatic protections.

According to the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, packages carrying official documents and other material deemed necessary for use by a diplomatic mission - provided that they are clearly marked as such - cannot be opened or detained.

Just as diplomats and their embassies are exempt from the rules and regulations which govern others in a host nation, their correspondence is also above national law.

Diplomatic correspondence between Gibraltar and London is usually sent by air.

“Some official correspondence between the FCDO and the Office of the Governor in Gibraltar was routed via the land border in error, rather than by air,” a spokesperson for the FCDO said.

“We are liaising with the Spanish authorities.”

This is not the first time that the UK has experienced problems at the border with its diplomatic mail, though it has been some years since the last incident.

In 2013, Britain protested formally to Spain after Spanish Guardia Civil border guards opened a diplomatic bag that was being shipped overland from Gibraltar to the UK.

At the time, the Foreign Office said such shipments were “inviolable” and that opening one was “a serious infringement” of the Vienna Convention.

“We take very seriously any reported abuse of the protocol...” a Foreign Office spokesperson said at the time.

“We have asked the Spanish authorities to investigate what occurred and take action to ensure it does not happen again.”

“As far as we are concerned there is no justification for this infringement of the UK's rights under the Vienna Convention.”

“Official correspondence and diplomatic bags are inviolable.”

Spain, whose then Foreign Minister was the hawkish Jose Manuel García-Margallo, dismissed the incident, insisting the bags were “not technically diplomatic bags”.

But David Lidington, the UK’s then Minister for Europe, later told the House of Commons that Spain subsequently explained the bags were opened as a result of “an error at a junior operational level”.

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