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Is diplomatic immunity misunderstood?

by on January 21, 2014

Modern day’s political realm is becoming increasingly overt to the public, making it ever so important for political representatives to be conscious of their actions, to avoid unwanted attention in both mainstream and social media. Even when politicians are not held legally accountable for certain actions, they will be persecuted by bad publicity and pressure. The same goes for diplomats.

This leads to the challenging of the true meaning of immunity. What are diplomats immune from and what does it in fact cover? Word of gross misdemeanor spread quicker than wildfire with online news being shared through various other media portals and more often than not will the government of those who engage in misdemeanor be compelled to act when large scale global attention is directed their way.

Immunity to protect 

Immunity was originally forged from the belief that diplomats should not be harmed at duty, but seems often to be perceived, or perhaps portrayed to be perceived, as a tool for allowing diplomats to get away with petty as well as serious crime without consequence. When the Persians sent ambassadors to negotiate with the Spartans they responded by throwing them down a deep well. The Persians however refrained from retaliating in a similar way towards the Spartan diplomats they currently had present at the will of king Xerxes I. The deed of the Spartans did however not pass with exemption and the battle of Thermopylae took place (Foreign policy, 2012).  

It is naturally difficult to establish any sustainable political relations between states when envoys that carry the word of the head of state are killed. Thus the notion of immunity came about quite early in history as an established means to protect envoys and messengers and became international law with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic relations (1961), which does strongly encourages foreign diplomats to respect and abide by the laws of the host nation in which they are in fact a guest.

International relations immune to diplomatic misconduct?

The notion of immunity has nonetheless been abused by many throughout time, from incorrect parking to not paying rent to slaughtering a sheep in the street (read more here). ImageDiplomats tend to end up under the magnifying glass of global media when they act inappropriately. This has been particularly prevalent the last month with two major scandals of foreign representatives in the U.S. There is one particularly interesting incident (read about the other, Khobragade case, here), not because of the offence that was committed, but the mild reactions that spurred from it.  In December last year, 49 Russian delegates in the U.S. were charged with spinning health benefits from the Medicaid program established to support families with low income, by falsifying their income – having over almost a decade accumulated a sum of $1.5 million (Flitter and Ax, 2013). This provoked bizarre statements from both the Russians, whose main concern were that it went public before they were briefed, and the Americans, who say that relations between the nations should not be affected negatively.

Russia and the U.S. are currently suffereing quite a tense, but important, affiliation. If a bilateral relation is important to both parties, it seems, based on previous incidents, the behaviour of the diplomats in their host country is to some extent rather irrelevant. Perhaps the immunity from punishment is important in maintaining a healthy ecosystem in which foreign policy resides, to prevent circles of retaliation. As the Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said; “We have many complaints about US diplomats in Moscow, but we are not making them public” (Kumar, para: 15, 2013). Or perhaps the immunity is in fact less significant in practice than being credited for. Being immune to the host’s laws does not consistently equal immunity from expulsion (and thus the law of the homeland), removal from positions, scandalisation in media or if worse than a small misdemeanour was committed, the request for a waiver to revoke the immunity. What clearly needs to be distinguished is the purpose of immunity in relation to how it operates in practice, and perhaps also legislative impunity from other types of reprisals. It is not a law that was passed for diplomats to take advantage of governments, but rather the other way around. As mentioned in the first paragraph, politicians and diplomats are public figures, and bad publicity in all its forms is usually a good deterrence from bad behaviour. The human relationship with embarrassment should not be undermined.

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Resources

Flitter E and Ax J, 2013, U.S. charges Russian diplomats with healthcare fraud, Reuters, December 5th 

Kumar N, 2013, Russian diplomats accused of $1.5m fraud in US – but immunity prevents arrest, The Independent, December 6th

Schrader H. P., n.d., Sparta reconsidered: Foreign policy, Elysium Gates

Trex E, n.d., 8 Shameless abuses of Diplomatic Immunity, Mental Floss

United Nations, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, April 18th 1961

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One Comment
  1. This is a really good piece of online writing, with excellent use of video, images and hyperlinks to online sources. Well done.

    Unfortunately, if you decide to include this entry in your portfolio for assessment at the end of the module, you will need to do a lot of work to make it relevant to the themes of the module. What you have written would have been perfect as a blog entry on GI5006, but how is it relevant to GI6007?

    Perhaps you could play up the heightened publicity and pressure that diplomatic immunity is coming under, including Boris Johnson chasing diplomats for unpaid parking fines and the congestion charge. As you note, the principle emerged in an earlier time of elite privilege more generally and is getting a rougher ride in an era of close public scrutiny of abuses of power and status. But can we erode this principle without endangering the channels of diplomatic communication, let alone do away with them altogether?

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