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Havana syndrome and the geographies of risk, danger, and workplace safety for diplomatic personnel posted overseas

Authors: Jamey Essex*, University of Windsor
Topics: Political Geography, Canada, United States
Keywords: Canada, diplomacy, geopolitics, Havana syndrome, risk
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Diplomats posted abroad work and live in a variety of places and spaces, and foreign ministries often remunerate their officers differentially based on the kind of posting where they work, allotting a wide range of subsidies and other supports when sending rotational personnel abroad. These pay and benefit differentials reflect the unevenness of physical risks and personal and institutional costs for diplomatic personnel living and working overseas. Considerations of risk and cost strongly shape the nature of diplomatic presence where geopolitical tensions run high, conflict is likely, and expenses can be hard to predict and control, and how foreign ministries handle rotational systems of personnel deployment expresses not just approaches to interstate tensions but also how they handle workplace health and safety concerns. The recent example of “Havana syndrome” among American and Canadian diplomats, in which numerous diplomatic personnel and even many of their family members exhibited debilitating concussion-like systems after being posted in Havana, Cuba starting in 2016, highlights how internal relations within foreign ministries and external relations between states shape perceptions of risk, danger, and conflict surrounding diplomatic sites and personnel. In this paper, I examine the Havana syndrome case, which has prompted intensive medical research on returning Canadian and American diplomats, widespread speculation about advanced sonic and microwave weaponry, and a lawsuit against the Canadian government by the Canadian foreign service officers’ union, to highlight how geographies of risk and danger matter for rotational personnel and systems in so-called hardship posts.

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