What is Diplomatic Immunity?

Every country in the world has a vastly different idea of what’s ok in the eyes of the law. For most of the population, this doesn’t matter. Either they’ll never set foot in countries at the other end of the legal spectrum, or they wouldn’t do so long enough to worry about breaking a law. What’s left is the few who immigrate or become diplomats.

While an immigrant is expected to learn the laws, since that nation is their new homeland, a diplomat travels far too often. Sometimes visiting several nations around the world over the course of a few weeks. This presents an issue. How can they be expected to learn the ins and outs of a complicated legal system when they’re already buried under government duties?

Diplomatic immunity is a tenet of international law created by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It gives them safe passage, free from lawsuit or prosecution under the host country’s laws. This spares them having to learn an entire rule book for every nation they visit, but also shields them from the possibility of using petty legal cases to bully other governments. It’s worth noting this isn’t a standard treatment. For a diplomat to receive immunity, it requires an agreement between both nations to exchange that privilege for one another’s visits.

While there have been extreme examples of diplomats abusing their nation’s immunity status, such as a 2010 representative smoking aboard a plane, then making remarks about committing a terrorist act, followed by an investigation which revealed his intention on meeting with planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Or perhaps the 2006 diplomat who opened an illegal casino inside of Sengal’s consulate. It generally is not a “get out of jail free” card.

If a diplomat is detained or accused of a crime, their home country is expected to make a case for whether or not that was necessary to carry out their job. If they choose not to, or their case is weak, the diplomat will be arrested. More extreme crimes such as murder are also grounds for immediate immunity loss. The diplomat’s home nation also reserves the right to settle the issue in their own courts regardless of charges faced here. Such as the 1997 Georgian diplomat who served three years on a manslaughter charge for killing a teenager while drunk driving. Upon returning home he was arrested, tried and sentenced to additional jail time.