September 16, 2019

Limits of Diplomatic Immunity

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General Assembly: Legal Committee

Topic: Limits of Diplomatic Immunity

Since 1961, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations has codified diplomatic immunity into international law, enabling diplomats to do their jobs with freedom, independence, and security. Diplomatic immunity limits the degree to which individuals from foreign governments and international organizations can be sued or prosecuted under the laws of the state where they are posted. This immunity varies depending on the individual’s office. For example, high-ranking embassy officials, such as ambassadors, typically enjoy the greatest degree of immunity, along with their family members. These officials and their families are immune from criminal courts and largely from civil courts. Other diplomatic personnel enjoy a similar immunity, though less from civil courts and only for acts performed in connection with their official role. Although codified by treaty, host states extend diplomatic immunity because they expect reciprocity from foreign states, to which they assign diplomats. Host states may enforce the limits of diplomatic immunity differently. For example, they may disregard it to ensure public safety, request that the home country waive an alleged offender’s immunity, or expel a diplomat from the host state altogether. In addition, diplomats are not immune to prosecution in their home country.

While immunity from lawsuits and prosecution are key to modern diplomacy, well-publicized incidents in recent years have called into question whether current limits on this immunity are sufficient. For example, in August 2019 Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a CIA employee stationed in the United Kingdom, was covered by diplomatic immunity when her car struck and killed Harry Dunn, a British man on a motorcycle. The U.S. government declined to waive Ms. Sacoolas’ diplomatic immunity and arranged for her return to the U.S. Prosecutors in the U.K. charged Ms. Sacoolas for her alleged crime, but the U.S. denied their request for extradition, leaving the criminal case unresolved as of September 2022. Incidents such as this may inflame tensions between states and deny justice to victims. Moreover, these incidents underscore the importance of setting appropriate limits on diplomatic immunity.

The Legal Committee must decide on the appropriate limits of diplomatic immunity, balancing its benefit to diplomatic relations while holding alleged offenders accountable. Addressing this issue may require discussing the degree to which diplomatic officials should be accorded immunity from local courts. In addition, it may be valuable to discuss opportunities to promote appropriate uses of diplomatic immunity and discourage common abuses.

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