Four days after Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin’s sudden death in New York City last month, the United States Mission to the United Nations wrote to the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs and requested a communications blackout on Churkin’s autopsy findings and cause of death. The result of this request means that the public may never know the official reason for the ambassador’s death.
==–––The two letters from the US mission, which is part of the US State Department, requesting public suppression are dated Feb. 24 and March 1. They were made public by the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, or OCME, on March 10.
Churkin was one of Russia’s longest-serving envoys to the UN, beginning from 2006, and died unexpectedly on Feb. 20, 2017, at age 64, in New York City. He received emergency medical treatment from the Fire Department of New York, who responded to a call to the Russian mission to the UN, on E. 67th Street, at 9:30 a.m. He was transported alive to a hospital nearby at 10:22 a.m., where he subsequently died.
Three days later, on Feb. 23, Churkin’s remains were repatriated to Moscow, where a funeral was attended by, among others, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister; Churkin’s widow, Irina Churkina; his daughter, Anastasia, who works for the Russian media group RT; and his son, Maksim. Churkin died one day shy of his 65th birthday.
Both US mission letters are signed by James B. Donovan, the US mission’s Minister Counselor for Host Country Affairs.
In the Feb. 24 letter, Donovan wrote to Marissa Jackson, the general counsel for the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, insisting “that public officers and employees discontinue any disclosures regarding the causes or circumstances of the death of the Russian Federation’s Permanent Representative.”
The US mission requested that information relating to Churkin’s death, including autopsy findings and manner and cause of death determined by the OCME, be withheld from the public.
The New York City chief medical examiner’s office is under the jurisdiction of the New York City mayor and is responsible for investigating all unexpected deaths in the five boroughs. It has at its diagnostic disposal definitive medical investigations, such as surgical autopsy, toxicology and specialized forensic laboratory testing.
Churkin’s sudden-death investigation is within the mandate of the chief medical examiner’s office, which since 2013 has been led by Dr. Barbara Sampson.
Donovan of the US mission cited diplomatic immunity — “privileges and immunities accorded to diplomatic envoys” — as a root argument for the chief medical examiner to withhold Churkin’s autopsy findings. Donovan referenced two legal agreements: Article 4, Section 15 of the 1974 Headquarters Agreement and Article 29 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
He wrote, “As an accredited Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin enjoys complete personal inviolability under Article IV, Section 15, of the United Nations Headquarters Agreement, done at Lake Success, New York, June 26, 1947.”
Donovan went on to explain that for American diplomats who die overseas, “the United States insists on the dignified handling of the remains of our diplomatic personnel who pass away abroad (including in Russia) and works to prevent unnecessary disclosures regarding the circumstances of their deaths.”
In the follow-up letter dated March 1 to Jackson of the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Donovan wrote that in light of new information provided to the US mission from that office on Feb. 28, “We are more convinced now than before that there are important policy and legal considerations that counsel in favor of nondisclosure of this information” — Churkin’s autopsy report and how he died.
Donovan again cited customary international law “regarding diplomatic missions” to argue that “Ambassador Churkin’s [deceased] person enjoys complete personal inviolability from government authorities (including administrative subdivisions),” such as the chief medical examiner.
Donovan laid out the US government’s expectations of the rights of overseas American diplomats, noting that “when American diplomats die abroad, the U.S. government resists autopsies by host government authorities on the basis of personal inviolability,” suggesting that the US has a reciprocal obligation to the diplomats of nations assigned to the UN located in New York City.
He noted that, regarding the investigation of Churkin’s sudden death, “the Russian Federation did not raise concerns until after an autopsy had already been conducted.”
Donovan also said that since “disclosure by the City is discretionary, we do not view release of the information to be legally necessary.”
A spokeswoman for the chief medical examiner’s office, Julie Bolcer, released a statement on March 10 saying, “in order to comply with international law and protocol, the New York City Law Department has instructed the Office of Chief Medical Examiner to not publicly disclose the cause and manner of death of Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations.”
These formal requests to the chief medical examiner’s office to not disclose Churkin’s autopsy report, or how he died, were made not by the Russian mission to the UN but by the US mission, who deferred to the US Department of State, now led by Rex Tillerson.
Bolcer added that further questions concerning the matter should be directed to the State Department, which refused through a spokeswoman to comment on the autopsy, “consistent with our obligations under the Headquarters Agreement between the United States and the United Nations.”
Tillerson, who was confirmed by the US Senate in a 56 to 43 vote, was sworn in as secretary of state at the White House on Feb. 1, 2017.
The autopsy communication constraints were not the case for a second Russian national, Sergei Krivov, who died unexpectedly at age 63 at the Russian consulate on the Upper East Side in New York City on Nov. 8, 2016. The chief medical examiner’s office released his cause of death, which was “hemorrhagic complications of aorto-broncho-esophageal fistula due to probable neoplasm.” Krivov died of natural causes.
Russia has not announced who will replace Churkin at its UN mission.
This article was updated.
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Dr. Catherine Mullaly is an anesthesiologist, global health physician, writer and journalist. Her interests lie in the politics, policies and practice of national health care in the United States, global health, emerging health care systems, gender economics, pandemics, war, natural disasters, trauma anesthesia, demographic change, humanitarian crises, population migration, human security, diplomacy, international security, the United Nations and the international disaster management system. She can be found on twitter @MullalyMD.
Dr. Mullaly trained in Canada, Australia and the US. She has worked around the world, including in the Middle East and North Africa. She was a 14-year attending anesthesiologist and faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. She graduated with a master’s in public health from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in 2010 and received an M.S. in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2015.