Diplomats and their ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card

By Rebecca Davis 28 September 2011

First our own minister of international relations played the “diplomatic immunity” card as the reason her bag shouldn't be subjected to security checks, and now Dominique Strauss-Kahn is citing it as the reason why his civil rape case should be dropped. But what exactly does diplomatic immunity entail? By REBECCA DAVIS.

The concept of diplomatic immunity dates back to the use of messengers in ancient times to carry messages between settlements. For them to perform their tasks, messengers needed to be able to move back and forth without fear of harm – that old “don’t shoot the messenger” principle. The practice was codified by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, and the rest is history.

What’s important to realise about diplomatic immunity is that it is not designed to give diplomats special privileges, but to enable them to do their jobs properly. This is particularly vital during periods of strained relations between two countries to ensure the individuals’ protection. There are distinct limits to the principle: if you commit a crime unrelated to your diplomatic role, your home government is likely to whip that rug from under your feet faster than you can whisper, “but I’m a diplomat”. Sometimes it’s a grey area, though –  the American consul general to Russia was involved in a car accident in 1998 that left a young man disabled. The US Court of Appeals ruled that he could not be sued civilly because he was using his vehicle for a diplomatic mission at the time.

In Strauss-Kahn’s case, lawyers for the rape plaintiff have dismissed his defence because they reject the idea that he qualifies as a diplomat. They’re right – diplomatic immunity is only for diplomats. DM

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