The Untouchables: Is Diplomatic Immunity Going Too Far?

Is it time to change the legal practice?

Diplomatic Impunity
In early 2005, Virginia police closed in on a suspected child predator — a man in his 40s who cops say drove four hours to meet a 13-year-old girl he’d met on the Internet, promising to teach her about sex. It turned out the girl was really a cop, and officers arrested the man at a shopping mall.

But then it was the police who got an unpleasant surprise. Their suspect, Salem Al-Mazrooei, was a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates — and therefore covered by “diplomatic immunity.” The cops had to let him go. Days later, Al-Mazrooei left the country, never having spent a night in jail.

Diplomatic immunity? Diplomatic impunity is more like it. Thanks to several international treaties observed by most nations, diplomats and embassy workers get special protections and privileges in the places they’re posted. Many of them can’t be arrested, sued or even taxed by host countries.

Some forms of diplomatic immunity are extremely important. For example, we need to make sure foreign diplomats — especially our own people overseas — don’t get locked up for political reasons. The problem is that immunity has come to be used as an absurdly broad cover for sleazy or criminal behavior. As a result, many of the 100,000 foreign diplomats and their dependents in America can break laws, blow off bills, even park where they please — and never pay for it.

While the vast majority act responsibly, some of them — including citizens of countries that get billions in taxpayer-funded U.S. foreign aid — behave in ways that would land anyone else behind bars. Immunity, says UN critic Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute, “invites abuse. And sure enough, the invitation has been accepted.”

Nobody knows this like the people of New York City, home to the United Nations. The UN rarely gets much done, but somehow its officials are still too busy to park legally. Between 1997 and the end of 2002, foreign diplomats racked up more than 150,000 unpaid parking tickets — totaling a staggering $18 million. But thanks to diplomatic immunity, the city has no power
to collect.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: The money is even bigger when it comes to property taxes. Diplomats get tax-exempt real estate for their official business, but some use the property to turn a profit. According to New York officials, diplomats from the Philippines, for example, ran a bank, a restaurant and even an airlines office from their Manhattan complex — for which they neglected to pay more than
$1 million in taxes. Since the city can’t go after the diplomats directly, it has resorted to suing foreign governments. But when New York sued Turkey for $70 million in back property taxes in 2003, the city wound up settling for a puny $5 million.

Perhaps the most brazen deadbeats, though, were officials from Zaire who stopped paying rent to their private landlord and ran up $400,000 in debt. When the landlord sued, the U.S. State Department defended the Zaireans, saying they were protected by immunity — and a circuit court agreed. The landlord finally cut off the utilities; that’s when the officials fled without paying their back rent. (Later, the landlords reportedly reached an “amicable agreement” with Zaire.)

Then there’s behavior that’s not only sleazy but also dangerous. Diplomats are famous for driving recklessly and often under the influence of alcohol. According to the New York Police Department, in April, a young Russian attaché, Ilya Sergeyevich Morozov, was allegedly driving drunk when he struck and injured a New York police officer who was trying to stop him from barreling into a closed roadway.
Morozov was protected by diplomatic immunity and let go.

Or how about the people who use their protection to smuggle drugs? In July, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced the indictment
of a UN employee who allegedly had smuggled drugs into the United States in special diplomatic pouches meant for official documents. The law also protects those pouches from inspection by local authorities, leaving us vulnerable not only to drugs coming into the country but also to weapons, chemicals and other destructive materials that can be used by terrorists.

Some of the most shocking crimes involve the way well-heeled diplomats treat their domestic workers. A recent essay by the American Anti-Slavery Group warned of “a growing concern among labor activists that diplomatic immunity has become a convenient cover for slavery.”

In 1999, a Bangladeshi woman named Shamela Begum said she was essentially enslaved by a senior Bahraini envoy to the UN and his wife. Begum charged that the couple took her passport, struck her and paid her just $800 for ten months of service — during which she was only twice allowed out of the couple’s New York apartment. But when Begum sued her employers, U.S. Justice Department lawyers argued that the case had to be dismissed because the Bahraini envoy and his wife had diplomatic immunity. Never mind that our Constitution bans slavery. (Begum later reached a settlement with her employers.) An isolated case? Estimates show that hundreds of women have been exploited by their diplomat employers over the past 20 years.

Unpaid bills, drunk driving, sex crimes and even slavery — isn’t there any recourse for this conduct? The State Department is right to worry about retaliation against U.S. diplomats abroad (who aren’t always on perfect behavior themselves). And we can’t just break our promises in a treaty. But Congress has power here — either by shaming guests into better behavior through public hearings or by chopping serious foreign aid to countries with troublemaking emissaries.

When Congress took a look at diplomatic immunity in the 1980s, a New York police detective testified about tracking down a suspect in a series of rapes. Although the suspect had been identified by two victims, the police had to let him go after 45 minutes because he was the son of a diplomat from Ghana. As he left, the former detective told The New York Times, “he snickered and said, ‘I told you I had diplomatic immunity.’ He was looking at the women, too, and laughing.” Twenty years later, it sounds like that attitude hasn’t changed.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest