Diplomatic immunity – getting away with crime
If you want to get away with a crime you should consider a career in the diplomatic service. Diplomats around the world – official representatives of foreign nations working in embassies and consulates – have what is called diplomatic immunity. It also applies to family members and staff. With this immunity it’s possible to literally get away with murder.
It’s a vital part of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and is part of Australian law under section 7 of the Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities Act 1967.
The intention is to protect diplomats from being hit with phony criminal charges in hostile countries. It’s designed to protect them from political interference or harassment. Police can intervene to prevent a diplomat committing an act of violence, but can’t charge a diplomat even for murder.
Immunity has earned some diplomats a bad name. United Nations diplomats from some countries in New York are notorious for not paying parking fines, racking up $US16 million in unpaid fines in 2015. New York’s mayor tried to shame them into paying by naming the worst offending countries. Egypt topped the list followed by Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, Morocco and Pakistan.
In Canberra foreign diplomats chalk up $1800 a week in unpaid fines. Australian diplomats overseas make a point of paying all traffic fines.
Serious crimes have been committed under the umbrella of diplomatic immunity. Diplomats have claimed immunity when caught beating wives and servants. Saudi diplomats in India recently claimed diplomatic immunity when maids told police they had been kept in captivity and repeatedly raped.
Diplomats have walked away from fatal car accidents and bad debts. Drugs and pornography have been smuggled through diplomatic bags that are exempt from customs searches.
Millionaires have taken up honorary diplomatic posts from tiny nations so they can use diplomatic immunity to get out of paying alimony, or worse. An Archbishop representing the Vatican in Australia claimed diplomatic immunity to avoid handing over documents to an investigation into pedophilia in the church.
But there is a way justice can be upheld. Immunity can be waived by the government employing the diplomat, or the diplomat can be recalled to face legal proceedings back home. The host country can declare the diplomat persona non grata and expel them.
But it doesn’t seem to be worrying unscrupulous diplomats keen to cash in on their immunity. The United Nations Library in New York revealed its most borrowed book of 2015 was titled ‘Immunity of Heads of States and State Officials for International Crimes’. At least it wasn’t ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.