The recent death of Harry Dunn, a 19-year old British national left many tongues wagging about the peculiar legal status that is diplomatic immunity. Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat who became the subject of an investigation after her car collided with the teenager’s motorcycle, left the UK shortly after the unfortunate incident occurred.
British authorities expressed their condolences to the bereaved family, saying that they would “explore all opportunities through diplomatic channels” to ensure unanswered questions surrounding the young man’s death would be answered to give them closure on the matter. From a legal standpoint, Sacoolas is protected by diplomatic immunity, given that she is married to a US diplomat.
But what is diplomatic immunity? Who has it, and how far does it extend? This article explores those questions in depth.
What Is Diplomatic Immunity?
It is a term that refers to a principle in international law that limits the extent to which employees and officials of foreign governments and international organizations are subject to the authority of law enforcement and judicial officers in the countries they’re assigned to work in.
It is a common misconception that these individuals can get away with anything. However, there are existing legal standards that govern the diplomatic community, especially in the US. This legal framework is modeled on the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations through which the New York Convention is interpreted.
It’s important to mention here that the principle doesn’t apply to all foreign government and international organization employees. When it does, it is subject to the extenuating circumstances surrounding the incident in question as well as the different categories and subcategories to which the individual and their families/dependents belong to.
Difference Between Diplomat and Consular
The two terms are often used interchangeably as many people erroneously think that they mean the same thing. They don’t.
A diplomat is a high-ranking official in an embassy who serves as the official representative of their home country in the host country they’ve been assigned to. They are stationed in an embassy, which is much larger than a consulate and is a permanent diplomatic mission generally located in the host country’s capital. They are charged with handling major issues like safeguarding the rights of their home country’s citizens abroad.
A consular, on the other hand, is the chief diplomat who serves in a consulate, which is essentially a smaller version of an embassy. They handle minor issues like issuing visas, looking after the interests of expatriates, migrants, tourists, and helping to promote trade relationships between their home and host countries. They typically located in larger tourist cities outside the country’s capital.
Who Has Diplomatic Immunity and Who Doesn’t
Generally speaking, it covers diplomats and their families. The provisions of the Vienna Convention stipulate the major personnel who enjoy diplomatic protection.
Embassy Personnel: High Ranking Foreign Diplomats
High ranking embassy officials such as ambassadors, who interact directly with the officials of the host country on behalf of their home country, enjoy the highest level of diplomatic immunity. The same extends to members of their families. Law enforcement agencies cannot arrest or detain them, nor can they search or seize their homes or properties, respectively.
So, if an ambassador gets sued for failing to service their mortgage premiums, the worst-case scenario is that they’ll lose the title to the property. The legal system in the host country, however, cannot compel them to pay damages, nor can they be evicted from the home.
Embassy Personnel: Administrative and Technical Staff
The next sub-category of embassy personnel is the administrative and technical staff. These are the individuals who offer direct support to ambassadorial activities in the host country. Examples of such people are personal assistants.
They enjoy the same level of immunity from law enforcement and criminal courts as their high ranking counterparts but not as much immunity from the civil courts.
Anyone can file a lawsuit against them for any reason except for activities that were performed in line with their official duties. However, this exception does not apply to their family members. So an ambassador’s PA who defaults on their mortgage premiums can end up not only losing the title to their home but can also get sued for damages.
Embassy Personnel: Indirect Support Staff
Embassy support staff who support ambassadorial activities, albeit indirectly, have the lowest degree of immunity. Employees in this category include chauffeurs for instance. They only enjoy criminal and civil protection for actions performed in line with their official duties.
In certain rare cases, administrative, technical, and indirect support staff may enjoy the same level of exemptions as that of high ranking diplomats. However, this only happens when there’s a custom home country and host country agreement for that specific purpose. On the other end of the spectrum, home countries could also waive the benefit entirely.
Embassy Personnel: Nationals of the Host Country
Embassy employees who are permanent residents or nationals of the country of assignment do not get any level of diplomatic immunity whatsoever. The same applies to their family members.
Consular personnel generally enjoy lower levels of immunity than embassy personnel. They benefit from full immunity for incidences that occur in line with their official duties and are subject to criminal prosecution for activities that fall outside that range.
However, they can only be detained on felony charges. This protection doesn’t apply to members of their families.
Consular technical and administrative staff members only enjoy immunity for behavior that is in line with their official duties. Other lower ranking consular employees do not enjoy any diplomatic immunity unless provided for in a special treaty between the home and host countries.
International Organization Representatives
High-ranking international organization representatives enjoy the same level of immunity as high-ranking diplomatic agents. Lower-ranking employees only benefit from protection for actions performed in line with their official duties.
However, not all high-ranking officials of international organization representatives enjoy equal levels of diplomatic protection. For instance, the UN Secretary-General enjoys full diplomatic immunity, whereas the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Director does not.
There Are Exceptions to the Rule
Diplomatic immunity doesn’t mean that its beneficiaries can get away with anything. Law enforcement officers are allowed to disregard whenever necessary if there’s an imminent threat to public safety.
For instance, a diplomat’s driver’s license suspension in cases of traffic violations, like driving under the influence (DUI).
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