Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Should diplomatic immunity be abolished?

Thomas Harris

Diplomatic immunity is an ancient concept whose modern counterpart was established globally through the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and then enacted into UK law by the 1964 Diplomatic Privileges Act. 1 Fundamentally, it allows diplomats in foreign nations to avoid both criminal and civil prosecution if they commit a crime. This is intrinsically an exception to the rule of law and would seem to violate fundamental principles that uphold our society, yet it is still seen by many as having the purpose of maintaining intergovernmental relations in pursuit of international peace. However, in recent times, public perception of diplomatic immunity seems to have soured somewhat with reports of cases where it seems to have been abused. Some people have lost sympathy for diplomats and have called for the abolition of their immunity. In this essay I will explore why diplomatic immunity is in use; investigate important cases; consider arguments for and against abolition; and evaluate any changes to diplomatic immunity that could be made. Through doing this I hope to provide a compelling case as to why I believe that diplomatic immunity needs to be reformed instead of being abolished. Firstly, I would like to examine more closely why diplomatic immunity is used and how it is enforced. Around 23,000 people in the UK currently possess diplomatic immunity, 2 which illustrates that this debate is certainly not unimportant. By nature, diplomats settle disputes between states. This certainly requires some level of protection, as they are particularly at risk of coercion whilst in another nation. They could otherwise face phony charges if they are politically opposed to a host nation, especially one determined to silence or punish another country through their diplomat. And it is important that diplomatic immunity is enshrined in law and not just, as was previously the case, an accepted custom: disagreements about what diplomatic immunity actually constitutes can thus be avoided. In practice, diplomatic immunity means that , as long as the diplomat’s home nation does not lift their immunity, a diplomat cannot be arrested or prosecuted by the host nation, except if they partake in professional activities outside of their official role. The only power that the host nation has is to expel a diplomat. Evidently, diplomatic immunity is designed to protect diplomats so that they are safe to perform their job. While this may seem a just cause, when diplomatic immunity applies to real life scenarios, it does not always seem to be promoting justice.

Secondly, I think it is very important to look at notorious cases relating to diplomatic immunity in recent years to illustrate why there is such controversy around whether it should be abolished. The first case involves the wife of a US diplomat, Mrs Sacoolas, who ran over a British motorcyclist, Mr Dunn,

1 Pert, A. Diplomatic immunity: Time to change the rules. interpreter/diplomatic-immunity-time-change-rules. Consulted: 16/8/22. 2 BBC. Harry Dunn crash: What is diplomatic immunity? Consulted: 17/8/22.


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