Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Diplomatic immunity

after leaving a Royal Air Force base in Northamptonshire on the 27 th August 2019. 3 Mrs Sacoolas used her diplomatic immunity to leave the UK and avoid facing any criminal charges; the US also declined the request from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to waive her immunity. 4 Public outcry soon followed on the basis that someone who was not carrying out diplomatic functions was able to escape consequences for killing a British citizen because the US chose not to extradite her. This would appear to be a clear failure of diplomatic immu nity as it denies victims justice for crimes unrelated to a diplomat’s role. Another often reported issue is of unpaid parking fines in London, where over £100 million in congestion charge fees remain unpaid since 2003. 5 While this is not necessarily the most serious misuse of diplomatic immunity, it highlights how the system is fundamentally flawed and allows diplomats to abuse their powers. The next case I want to highlight is of Basfar v Wong [2022], in which Ms Wong accused a diplomat representing Saudi Arabia in the UK, Mr Basfar, of forcing her to work in conditions of modern slavery. 6 Mr Basfar attempted to fight this claim on the basis of his diplomatic immunity, but the Supreme Court ruled that he would not have diplomatic immunity if the facts of the claim were proven, 7 due to the allegations being considered as commercial activity – one of the few exceptions to diplomatic immunity concerns diplomats conducting commercial activity in the host nation. 8 This ruling does provide some hope that diplomatic immunity may not require complete reformation, as it shows that victims of diplomats’ crimes can seek compensation. However, the diplomat has not faced any consequences yet, and the expansion of commercial activity to include trafficking or slavery could risk creating an uncertainty over what is allowed, which only further complicates the system. Overall, these cases clearly show that diplomatic immunity has been misused in the past, showing that there is a pressing need to change or remove it. On the one hand, as stated previously, diplomatic immunity is clearly essential to the preservation of international cooperation between governments and thus to abolish it could have detrimental effects, such as escalating tensions between states if one feels that a diplomat has been targeted or detained unfairly and, as a result, may look to take more aggressive action as a response. The removal of the accepted principle of diplomatic immunity could also give rise to the shrewd targeting of diplomats overseas where countries may charge them on phony counts in order to try to gain information in exchange for the diplomat’s freedom. Diplomats could also be imprisoned to try to gain leverage over another country in a more severe scenario. Another, potentially overlooked, consequence of the abolition of diplomatic immunity is that it could considerably worsen international relations as diplomats may not feel as comfortable travelling to different countries and, as a result, countries in conflict may fail to reach agreements. This could also lead to more talented diplomatic candidates being dissuaded from entering the service as they would receive less support. In addition, any unilateral 3 Wikipedia. Death of Harry Dunn. Consulted: 20/8/22. 4 See note 1. 5 BBC. Diplomats owe over £116m in congestion charges. Consulted: 13/8/22. 6 Hawley, C. No diplomatic immunity in modern slavery cases, Supreme Court rules. Consulted: 12/8/22. 7 The Supreme Court. Basfar (Respondent) v Wong (Appellant). 0155.html. Consulted: 12/7/22. 8 Wikipedia. Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Consulted: 2/8/22.


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