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Diplomats – like governments – are too immune from accountability

A US diplomat's wife accused of killing a British teenager in a car crash should not have been allowed to flee the UK. 

By Carne Ross

At first sight, it’s an outrage that Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s wife accused of killing a 19-year-old motorcyclist in a car crash in Northamptonshire, has fled the UK despite reportedly telling the police that she would not. Sacoolas may have committed a serious crime, and if so she should face the full force of the law.

But normal legal rules do not apply to diplomats — or their families. When diplomats are involved in alleged wrongdoing, their home countries often choose to claim diplomatic immunity, thwarting any possible prosecution. In this instance, despite appeals from the Prime Minister himself, the US has refused to lift Sacoolas’s immunity, meaning that even if she returned to the UK, she could not be prosecuted.

The argument for diplomatic immunity is that officials need to be free to conduct their business without fear of malicious interference by the host government. During the Soviet years, Western diplomats posted to Moscow were subject to an array of ruthless tactics to intimidate them. In one case, a British diplomat was involved in a car crash concocted by the local authorities in order to compromise him and, perhaps, make him vulnerable to intelligence “attack”: “we can make this problem go away if you work with us …” I’ve little doubt that Soviet diplomats posted in the West faced similar methods.

But today, diplomatic immunity is far more often abused than used to protect innocent diplomats from local hostility. Diplomats commit crimes: they are no better or worse than ordinary citizens. Embassies that ignore parking tickets or fail to pay their rent are at the more innocuous end of the spectrum. Far worse are cases of serious crimes, including sexual offences and, sometimes, killing. Every government in the world will have bulging files of wrongdoing by diplomats: the British government certainly does. Most of these cases are hushed up, dealt with by a firm request for the offending diplomat to be sent home. 

This seems objectionable but defenders reply that, in reality, it’s difficult to protect a diplomat maliciously accused by, say, the Iranian government while allowing the prosecution of one accused of drink driving in London. Who decides where to draw the line? If I were a British diplomat posted to Pyongyang or Tehran, I would be very nervous about any reduction in the protections of the 1961 Vienna Convention (which provides the legal basis for diplomatic immunity).

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Nevertheless, I am sure I am not alone in feeling that the need to “do business”, including spying on one another, does not justify diplomats getting away with murder — as some have. If governments are worried about their diplomats’ safety, they can easily talk to each other in safe places such as the UN or, heaven forbid, on Skype. Diplomats who commit serious crimes should be held to account like everyone else, with immunity perhaps maintained for less grave offences.

Diplomatic immunity is part of a more pernicious latitude awarded to governments. The same morality (or amorality) that allows diplomats to drink drive, permits governments to use violence, including killing people. It can be plausibly argued that as long as governments grant themselves this permission, violence and conflict will remain a routine feature of our political, particularly international, landscape. Likewise, officials – including diplomats – who commit war crimes only rarely face accountability and this is one reason war crimes continue. 

Today, the British government is abetting war crimes, including the killing of civilians, in Yemen (as UN experts have warned). But as with the Iraq war, the officials and ministers concerned can be confident that they will never face meaningful accountability. Diplomatic immunity is part of the same continuum, and it’s time that we treated this permissiveness with more scepticism. Both governments and diplomats should be expected to be held to the same moral and legal standards as the rest of us — or face the consequences.

Carne Ross is the executive director of Independent Diplomat, the non-profit diplomatic advisory group. A former British diplomat, he is also the author of Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Hurst)