On 27 February 2011, it was reported in the media that the United Kingdom had revoked the diplomatic immunity of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi and his family (see here and here). Earlier that day, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told BBC1`s Andrew Marr Show:
‘[…] the people of Libya have risen up against Colonel Gaddafi. We have here a country descending in to civil war with atrocious scenes of killing of protestors and a Government actually making war on its own people so, of course, it is time for Colonel Gaddafi to go. That is the best hope for Libya and last night I signed a directive revoking his diplomatic immunity in the United Kingdom but also the diplomatic immunity of his sons, his family, his household so it`s very clear where we stand on, on his status as a head of state.’
William Hague`s statement seems to give the impression that the United Kingdom no longer recognizes Colonel Gadhafi as ‘head of State’, despite him still being listed as such on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office`s website ‘Country Profile: Libya’. This also seems to be confirmed by the fact that an operation by British special forces the night before which rescued some 150 oil workers from remote desert camps in Libya was carried out without the ‘official permission’ of the Qadhafi Government.
The revocation of personal immunity and, even more so, the withdrawal of recognition from a serving head of State who continues to control substantial parts of the foreign State`s territory would seem an unprecedented move in British State practice. Recognition is usually withdrawn and, consequently, immunity lost when a government ceases to be effective, either because it is forced into exile or comes under foreign military occupation. Withdrawal of recognition takes place either by express notification or public statement, or implicitly through the recognition of a new de jure government. The British Government withdrew its recognition, for example, from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in November 1938, the Polish Government of Unity and National Defence on 5 July 1945, the Nationalist Government of China on 6 January 1950, and the Government of Democratic Kampuchea on 6 December 1979.
Rather than withdrawing head of State recognition from Colonel Qadhafi and depriving him of diplomatic or personal immunity in the United Kingdom, the Direction signed by Foreign Secretary William Hague has, in fact, a much more limited effect.