Monday, July 5, 2010

A diplomatic iniquity

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Legal immunity is an anachronism. Embassy staff should no longer be able to dodge justice

From mass murder to the congestion charge, gambling debts, shop-lifting and sex trafficking, thousand of London residents are utterly exempt. They have "diplomatic immunity", and this is not confined to diplomats: it covers most embassy officials, their spouses and children. This week the foreign secretary revealed the latest list of "friendly" countries, from Sierra Leone to Saudi Arabia, that have played this "don't go to jail at all" card to save their embassy staff from prosecution for serious offences. It is time to reassert the rule of law over a class of persons who are a lot less important than they think.

The notion that representatives of foreign powers should have special protection goes back to the herald on Homer's battlefields. Immunity for diplomats served a purpose in the cold war, when they risked blackmail and honeytraps and might otherwise have faced false charges in rigged courts. For this reason the Vienna Convention in 1961 guaranteed the total inviolability of embassy premises and personnel.

But a heavy price has been paid for that impunity: guns and drugs have often been smuggled in diplomatic bags, and at one point Scotland Yard estimated that 40% of London's shoplifting and parking offences were committed by the wives and cars of diplomats. More seriously, there was the Libyan diplomat who murdered PC Yvonne Fletcher: he was escorted to Heathrow, rather than to the Old Bailey, and the smoking gun left the UK in his inviolable baggage.

In 1961 there was no alternative to the courts of the countries where embassy officials served. But today we have a developing system of international criminal courts, whose judges could provide an independent and unbiased alternative. (They have international prisons as well, if objection is taken to the condition of local jails). It is time for the Vienna Convention to be renegotiated to end impunity by requiring all credible and serious charges (carrying a 10-year plus maximum sentence) levelled against diplomats and their families and retainers to be tried – either by waiving immunity, or electing to have them dealt with in an international court or ad hoc tribunal (eg judges from the local and sending states, with a UN judge presiding).

Until this can be achieved, the FCO must take the problem of criminal diplomats much more seriously than in the past, where details of immunity claims have had to be extracted by parliamentary questions. Any country that chooses to protect an embassy official against prosecution must be treated with the contempt it deserves: its ambassador should be carpeted, any aid budget reviewed, and full details of charges and evidence released to the media in this country and in the country of the diplomat's nationality. In the case of countries such as Sierra Leone (which, quite disgustingly, has just stopped the UK prosecution of one of its diplomats for sex trafficking) we should actually threaten to withhold aid until the alleged offender's immunity is waived.

This approach would work wonders for the payment of parking tickets and other motoring fines. Some years ago the US threatened to deduct the total of unpaid parking fines run up by each embassy in Washington from its country's foreign aid allocation. Most embassies paid up immediately.

The problem with the congestion charges unpaid by the likes of America and Japan must be handled differently. These countries claim that the charge violates the Vienna Convention, but hypocritically refuse to have the issue decided by a British court, or referred to the international court of justice in The Hague. The answer is for Boris Johnson, the London mayor, to seek a declaration in the high court that the inviolability of an embassy's premises has nothing to do with the route taken by its limousines, and for Mr Hague to take them, no pun intended, to the Hague.

The immunity that once served to keep communications open is hardly necessary in the age of the email and video link. Diplomats and their dependants should no longer prove an exception to the rule of law.

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