Does Diplomatic Immunity Really Make It So You Can Get Away with Murder?

Mark H. asks: Is it true diplomats can get away with murder because of diplomatic immunity?

While the idea of some form of diplomatic immunity has existed seemingly as long as there have been humans banding together in some form, the modern rules surrounding this were originally laid out in 1961 at the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, with to date 191 different nations ratifying that treaty. Pop culture would have you believe that these rules function as something of a “get out of jail free” card for any and all crimes committed by diplomats.

So is this true?

Well, kind of.  Though the reality, as ever, is a bit more nuanced.

But to begin with, you might be asking yourself why diplomats are afforded such blanket immunity in the first place. In a nutshell, nations have found this necessary to insure their diplomats can do their jobs, and in extreme cases to stop other nations from being able to manipulate the law in order to harass, imprison, torture, etc. diplomats. The reasons a given nation might want to do this are varied, but it often comes down to wanting to get information out of the diplomat or otherwise just to get back at the diplomat’s home country for some reason. Without diplomatic immunity, this can easily be done by making up crimes the diplomat is supposed to have committed and things of this nature.

Thus diplomatic immunity grants diplomats and any other agreed upon persons (usually said diplomat’s close family and staff) blanket immunity from all local laws of the host country they happen to be staying in. Diplomats can’t be arrested, forced to testify in court, sued or made to pay taxes and any attempt to do so in anything but the most extreme cases is generally ill-advised. In rare cases where nations have gone ahead and done this anyway, this usually results in something of an international incident, and in some cases retribution against’ one’s own nation’s diplomats or citizens residing in the other country at the time.

This said, if someone with diplomatic immunity attempts to endanger public safety or the like, law enforcement are allowed to intervene in this situation to prevent a crime from occurring. It’s just that the diplomat in question can’t be arrested for having attempted whatever criminal act.

It’s also worthy of explicitly mentioning that only relatively high ranking officials enjoy such blanket immunity. With a few exceptions, lower ranking officials instead have a type of diplomatic immunity called “functional immunity,” which covers them for any crimes committed when performing their jobs. If they commit a crime when going about their non-work life, however, they can be prosecuted the same as anyone else. It’s also noteworthy that, unlike high ranking officials, this immunity does not extend to their families.

Now, you might think from this that there must be a slew of diplomats going around smuggling drugs, attempting to kill police officers nearing retirement, and drowning their own personal secretaries when they become a little too close to an officer. And in some sense, you would be correct- there have indeed been diplomats that have done at least one of those things.

However, the reality is that most diplomats toe the line pretty closely as to do otherwise could see them not only potentially lose their job, but also get into some pretty hot water back home, which we’ll get into shortly.

That said, there are some minor crimes that diplomats on the whole seem happy to leverage their diplomatic immunity to get away with.

Exhibit A: a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled Cultures of Corruption: Evidence from Diplomatic Parking Tickets.

This looks at seemingly the favorite rule to ignore among all diplomats from every nation- paying parking tickets.

It turns out diplomats can in fact be ticketed for speeding, parking invalidly, etc., but they are under no obligation to pay any such tickets, nor are there any legal consequences for failing to follow the rules of the road. Sure, a given state can revoke their license to drive. But thanks to their diplomatic immunity, the diplomat can’t technically get in any legal trouble for driving without a license.

As you might expect from this and the fact that no nation would risk an international incident over a parking ticket, many diplomats don’t pay them.

The study further found that the likelihood of a given diplomat paying a parking ticket or not strongly correlated to how low on Transparency International’s corruption scale their home country’s government ranked. So, for example, a Venezuelan diplomat would be drastically more likely to both get a parking ticket and not pay it compared with, say, a diplomat from the UK or Canada.

They also noted that, regardless of how corrupt a given diplomat’s home government is considered, countries that did not have a particularly good relationship with the U.S. were more likely to see their diplomats in the U.S. accrue unpaid parking tickets compared to diplomats from countries that did have a good relationship with the United States.

But, again, when it comes to tickets and following the rules of the road, this does seem to be something diplomats from all nations occasionally like to ignore. In fact, thanks to the headquarters of the United Nations being in New York City, it turns out the city is currently owed in excess of $20 million in unpaid parking tickets from diplomats from various countries, with Egyptian diplomats leading the pack, owing the city about $2 million.

Amazingly, a whopping $700,000 of that $2 million figure was accrued by just four cars…

What makes these figures even more ridiculous is that if the ticketing officer sees that a given car belongs to a diplomat, depending on the officer, they occasionally don’t even bother issuing a ticket, knowing it’s usually a waste of time.

A similar thing can be seen in the UK where, for example, the U.S. embassy currently owes the city of London approximately £10 million in unpaid congestion charge fees, let alone the £90 million or so all other nations combined owe and don’t seem to have any interest in paying.

Further, London sees approximately half a million pounds in unpaid parking fees accrue from diplomats from all nations combined each year.

Now, you may at this point be wondering where the nuance is we alluded to at the beginning of this article.

It turns out that even diplomats representing completely corrupt governments who couldn’t care less if their diplomats are smuggling drugs, so long as it’s lining the pockets of politicians back home, they still must be a little careful given that as part of the Vienna Convention, any host nation can choose to declare a given diplomat personae non gratae. After this is done, the diplomat must leave the country in short order, though they are given some buffer time to do this. If they choose to instead stick around, the host nation can then consider that they have forfeited their diplomatic immunity and prosecute them to their heart’s content.

However, declaring a diplomat personae non gratae is not something done lightly as it can potentially strain relationships between nations, depending on exact circumstances, and can result in one’s own citizens and diplomats being harassed in a variety of unpleasant ways, if for no other reason than out of spite.

Again, one of the the main points of diplomatic immunity is to ensure your own country’s diplomats can do their jobs safely and without fear of harassment against themselves or their families.

Another potential consequence to diplomats abusing their immunity is that the host nation can appeal to the diplomat’s home state to revoke their immunity or appeal to them to prosecute the diplomat themselves- and occasionally the home states do acquiesce to these requests in one way or the other.

For instance, in 1997 a Republic of Georgia diplomat, Gueorgui Makharadze, was driving drunk and accidentally hit and killed a teenage girl. Rather than try to protect their, at the time, second highest ranked diplomat, they instead revoked his immunity so he could be prosecuted in the United States. He ultimately was imprisoned for three years in the U.S. and then transferred to a prison in Georgia to finish his sentence.

In another example of what can happen to a diplomat breaking the rules, in 2009 a Romanian diplomat in Singapore ran a red light (a popular act by many-a-diplomat the world over), but in this case hit and killed three people in the process…

He then fled the scene of the accident and later reported that his car had been stolen. It was later determined otherwise with witnesses reporting the diplomat in question was driving the car at the time.

While Romania didn’t officially waive his diplomatic immunity, they did prosecute him themselves and seized some of his property to pay civil suits. On top of this, seemingly to make an example out of him, when he attempted to appeal his three year prison sentence, the Romanian court not only denied the appeal, but went ahead and doubled his sentence for good measure. He ultimately died in prison.

In yet another case of drunk driving resulting in a death, in 2001 a diplomat from Russia working in Canada drove off the road, hitting two people and killing one.  He had previously been caught drunk driving twice before with no consequence owing to his diplomatic immunity. This time, he claimed he was not driving drunk despite all evidence to the contrary, but leveraged his diplomatic immunity and refused to take a breathalyzer test.  Canadian officials requested his diplomatic immunity be revoked, but the request was denied. However, once back in Russia, beyond losing his job, his own government prosecuted him and he spent the next four years in prison.

Moving on to other crimes, again, diplomatic immunity does indeed extend to covering everything from tax evasion, avoiding paying rent, mortgage, child support, or other debts, to even the most heinous of crimes including murder, enslaving someone, gang rape, kidnapping, extreme physical abuse, drug smuggling, threatening a terrorist attack, and even sex with minors- all crimes, by the way, various diplomats have committed in the past.

For example, in 1999, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Canada called Shuji Simokoji viciously beat his wife, admitted to authorities to doing so and referred to it as “no big deal”, only to be released without incident. He was later demoted and given a pay cut by the Japanese government.

In another example in 2005, a United Arab Emirates diplomat working in the US as the director of their scholarship program called Salem Al-Mazrooei was arrested for attempting to solicit sex from a 13 year old girl he met online. It turns out, however, the girl was actually a much older police officer. When he showed up to meet her, the police attempted to arrest him, but thanks to his diplomatic immunity he went free. While he was fired from his position, within a few days of the incident, he was able to flee back to United Arab Emirates while it was being decided whether his diplomatic immunity would be waived. It’s not clear what happened to him then.

Moving swiftly on, on top of this sort of blanket immunity, a much less well known right afforded to diplomats is the ability to carry something known as a diplomatic bag, or diplomatic pouch. The idea behind diplomatic bags is to allow diplomats to move sensitive information across international borders freely.

The rules for this immunity are, again, laid out in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations where its Article 27 states:

The receiving State shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes . . . . The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable . . . . The diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained [and] the packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use.

Of course, many people have ignored this last phrase and are happy to ship all manner of things in this way.

On that note, despite the name, a diplomatic bag doesn’t necessarily have to be a bag, or even something a diplomat can carry thanks to the vague guidelines for what exactly a diplomatic bag is. As a result, a diplomat can declare anything from a simple paper envelope to a shipping container to be a diplomatic bag.

Like with diplomatic immunity, the concept of diplomatic pouches is open to abuse, with diplomats in the past using them to smuggle drugs, weapons, and all manner of illicit things across international borders.

For an example of a more extreme case, in 1984 Nigerian officials allegedly contracted Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence and Special Operations Institute, to use their agents to kidnap a man called Umaru Dikko in London.

Dikko had once been a prominent member of the former Nigerian government which was overthrown in 1983 in a military coup. He then fled to London, but the new government wanted him back to try him on supposed crimes involving corruption and stealing billions of dollars in oil revenues from the country.

Whether these charges were true or not, the agents managed to find, drug and kidnap Dikko before shoving him in the crate along with a physician who was charged with keeping him alive during the journey.

They would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for a meddling man named Charles Morrow.

Morrow had seen an All Ports Bulletin from Scotland Yard noting that a kidnapping of a prominent Nigerian man had taken place. It also noted Scotland Yard thought it very likely the kidnappers would presently be trying to smuggle the Nigerian out of the country.

Around this same time, Morrow found himself with a diplomat from Nigeria attempting to ship two rather large crates back to Nigeria aboard a Nigeria Airways Boeing 707 that was otherwise empty of passengers besides security guards.

To quote Morrow,

I just put two and two together. So I am looking out of the window and I can see the space which is these two crates, clearly big enough to get a man inside. We’ve got a Nigerian Airways 707, which we don’t normally see. They don’t want the crates manifested, so there would be no record of them having gone through. And there was very little other cargo going on board the aircraft.

He goes on, “To qualify as a ‘diplomatic bag’ they clearly had to be marked with the words ‘Diplomatic Bag’ and they had to be accompanied by an accredited courier with the appropriate documentation. It was fair to say they had a Nigerian diplomat – I’d seen his passport – but [the crates]… weren’t marked ‘Diplomatic Bag’.”

Using this fact, even though the diplomat was trying to invoke the rules surrounding diplomatic bags, Morrow was safely able to ignore the request and ordered the crates to be opened, where they found the kidnapped Nigerian:

He had no shirt on, he had a heart monitor on him, and he had a tube in his throat to keep his airway open. No shoes and socks and handcuffs around his ankles. The Israeli anaesthetist was in there, clearly to keep him alive…

In an example of what can happen when a given nation flouts the spirit of the rules here, when the UK then arrested those involved in the kidnapping, Nigeria responded in kind by arresting two British engineers that happened to be in Nigeria at the time. These poor fellows were given 14 year prison sentences to match the 10-14 year sentences the kidnappers had been given back in the UK. On top of this, a diplomatic rift formed between Nigeria and the UK that lasted for two years following the incident.

Of course, both the Nigerian and Israeli governments denied they had had any part in the plot.

However, again, this is something of an extreme example and diplomats are generally charged by their home nations to do their best to follow the laws of the lands they are made a diplomat in, lest they suffer consequences with their home nations.

In fact, the Vienna Convention itself notes that, “without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.”

But there are bad eggs in every line of work and diplomats are no different, other than perhaps the bad eggs being more likely to reveal their rancid nature owing to more limited consequences, if any in some cases.

So to conclude, diplomatic immunity can indeed potentially function as a “get out of jail free” card and many a diplomat seems happy to abuse their power in very minor ways. But when it comes to major abuses, owing to things like potential loss of a job they no doubt worked hard to get in the first place, risking being at the center of an international incident, potential legal consequences in their home nations, and just the fact that most people don’t have an inclination to go around murdering people or the like, diplomats usually choose to follow the laws of the lands they are dispatched to.

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Bonus Fact:

  • In the aforementioned study looking at parking ticket rates in New York City by various diplomats, one interesting little tidbit they noted was that directly following the 9/11 attacks, diplomats from countries that were on good terms with the U.S. seem to have temporarily cleaned up their act with regards to violating rules of the road in New York City.
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  • Borzoi hounds (Russian Wolf Hounds) were considered “national treasures” by the Soviet Government in 1984 and banned from export. A friend of mine was a US diplomat in the USSR and obtained a Borzoi puppy. Since it was a young puppy and marked like a collie it was shipped to the US as a collie puppy but its official registration papers as a Borzoi came out in a US Diplomatic pouch. Result it was able to be registered with the American Kennel Club.

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