Monday, January 13, 2014

Shades Of Gray

With the United States embroiled in a tit for tat debate with India over the treatment a diplomat, the issue of diplomatic immunity has been making headlines as of late.  At issue is the arrest of the Indian woman on charges that she committed visa fraud by falsifying records related to the employment of her Indian nanny.  The details are murky and contested by both sides but the larger question to ponder is whether diplomatic immunity is a "get out of jail free card" allowing foreign diplomats to be exempt from following any and all of the laws of their host country (which in this case is the United States but the same principle can be applied to diplomats posted in any country around the world).

So what exactly is diplomatic immunity and who is entitled to this privilege?  According to Wikipedia, diplomatic immunity is a form of legal immunity governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that ensures that diplomats are free to conduct their business and are not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under their host country's laws. Although it is rarely done, and India has refused to do so, a diplomat's home country may waive the immunity and allow the host country to prosecute if the diplomat has committed a serious crime.  But the decision to do so lays with the home country and the home country alone.  So does this mean a diplomat can do what they want, when they want without shouldering the consequences of their actions or should?  Is it really a ticket to evade the law for one's own personal gain?  

Anyone who has spent time in the Washington D.C./Northern Virginia area is familiar with the license plates sported by diplomatic vehicles.  All too often these are the cars that are double parked along Connecticut Avenue, speeding along Constitution Avenue, and generally violating a myriad of traffic laws with the police turning a blind eye since the registered owners of the vehicles are diplomats.  I'll be honest, here in Albania the local authorities afford us, as diplomats, the same courtesy.  But just because you can violate traffic laws and get away with it doesn't mean you should. At least that is how my husband and I feel.  More often than not it would be easier to double park but we then remind ourselves of how we disliked this very behavior when we lived in D.C.  (And yes, it doesn't matter if everyone, regardless of their status, in Albania violates the traffic laws.  A law is a law).  We also believe that as diplomats, we are representatives of our country at all times and as such, we should set a good example and even be held to a higher standard than the general public.  After all, if nothing else, our license plates immediately identify us as both Americans and diplomats.  If only others felt the same way.  But in the big scheme of things, I suppose traffic violations which include thousands of unpaid fines in the DC alone, are a relatively minor problem when compared to some things that go on.

The Washington Post published an op-ed piece on the extent of diplomatic immunity last week that highlighted the problem of foreign diplomats exploiting domestic workers in the United States.  Unfortunately, it is an all too common occurance with diplomat after diplomat hiding behind their immunity while they knowingly and sometimes openly violate the U.S.'s labor and human rights laws.  I seriously think that for every case that gets brought to the public's attention there are several more lurking behind the shield of immunity.  Because of this there are people who are essentially enslaved on American soil and treated in ways that no human should ever be treated.  More often than not when problems become public, diplomats are whisked out of the country without receiving any punishment for their crimes.  In rare cases, the country will waive the immunity and the diplomat will be punished.  If only this happened more often.   Instead, as has happened in this most recent incident, the diplomat returns home after committing misdeeds unrelated to their actual job, the crimes go unpunished, and victims are left victimized.  Somehow I seriously doubt that is what the framers of the Vienna Convention had in mind.


  1. Very interesting post!
    I will admit that most of my knowledge of diplomatic immunity comes from television, but I have often had the same thought. Wondering if being a diplomat gives you carte blanche to do whatever you want in another country with no fear of punishment. Thank you for the insight!

  2. I found this particular case to be very interesting as well, especially the outcry in India against the US' treatment of the diplomat. Basically, I believe that if you break the law in the country where you live and work you should be prosecuted, diplomat or not. I had some of my best party weekends in college with kids of diplomats :).