Diplomatic immunity

From Academic Kids

Diplomatic immunity is a form of legal immunity and a policy held between governments, which ensures that diplomats are given safe passage and are considered not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under the host country's laws (although they can be expelled). It was agreed as international law in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), though there is a much longer history in international law.

It is possible for the official's home country to waive immunity; this tends to only happen when the individual has committed a serious crime, unconnected with their diplomatic role (as opposed to, say, allegations of spying), or has witnessed such a crime. Alternatively, the home country may prosecute the individual.



The sanctity of diplomats has been observed for centuries. While there have been a number of cases where diplomats have been killed, this is normally viewed as a great breach of honour. Genghis Khan and the Mongols were well known for strongly insisting on the rights of diplomats, and they would often take horrific vengeance against any state that violated these rights.

Modern diplomatic immunity evolved parallel to the development of modern diplomacy. In the seventeenth century European diplomats realized that protection from prosecution was essential to doing their jobs and a set of rules evolved guaranteeing the rights of diplomats. These were still confined to Western Europe, and were closely tied to the prerogatives of nobility. Thus an emissary to the Ottoman Empire could expect to be arrested and imprisoned upon the outbreak of hostilities between their state and the empire. The French Revolution also disrupted this system as the revolutionary state and Napoleon imprisoned a number of diplomats accused of working against France. More recently, the Iran hostage crisis was a violation of diplomatic immunity.

In the nineteenth century the Congress of Vienna system reasserted the rights of diplomats, and they have been largely respected since then as the European model has spread throughout the world.


In some occasions, diplomatic immunity leads to some unfortunate results; protected diplomats have violated laws (including those which would be violations at home as well) of the host country and that country has been essentially limited to informing the diplomat's nation that the diplomat is no longer welcome (the Latin phrase is persona non grata). Such violations have included espionage in a large number of cases, smuggling of small high value items in a surely much larger number of instances, some troubling child custody law violations, rape and even murder in a few cases. Historically the problem of large debts run up by diplomats has caused many problems.

A particular problem with an intermittently amusing side is the immunity of diplomatic vehicles to ordinary traffic regulations such as prohibitions on double parking. Occasionally, such problems may take a most serious turn, when disregard for traffic rules leads to bodily harm or death.

  • In New York City, the home of the United Nations Headquarters and a city in which many drivers regard double parking as normal despite regulations, protests against double-parked diplomatic vehicles have a certain quixotic quality. Nonetheless, the City eternally, and interminably, protests to the US Department of State about non-payment of parking tickets due to diplomatic status.
  • In France, between November 2003 and 2004, there were 2,590 cases of diplomatic cars caught speeding by automatic radars. China alone had 155 violations. In comparison, there were 4,400 speeding violations by French official vehicles, such as police cars, an obviously much greater population than the Diplomatic Corps (Le Canard Enchan, March 16 2005).

In fiction, diplomatic immunity is often portrayed negatively with criminals with diplomatic papers brazenly committing the most violent crimes and arrogantly waving their immunity about when the heroes try to stop them. In fact, most professional diplomats are representatives of large, powerful nations with a tradition of professional civil service. They are expected to obey regulations governing their behaviour and they suffer strict internal consequences if they flout local laws. Diplomats who disobey minor regulations or break major laws, or disappear with bad debts are in a minority, and they usually come from small or poor or badly organized countries with no tradition of a professional diplomatic service or of a national civil service. In many of the richest and largest nations of the globe a professional diplomat's career is compromised if he or she (or even members of his or her family) disobeys the local authorities.

Diplomatic immunity in the United States

Note that the below applies to the United States. In other countries other rules may apply, though in most cases this summary is a reasonably accurate approximation.

Category May be arrested or detained Residence may be entered subject to ordinary procedures May be issued traffic ticket May be sub - poenaed as witness May be prosecuted Official family member
Diplomatic Diplomatic agent No1NoYesNoNo Same as sponsor
Member of administrative and technical staff No1NoYesNoNo Same as sponsor
Service staff Yes2YesYesYes No, for official acts. Otherwise, yes2 No2
Consular Career Consular Officers Yes, if for a felony and pursuant to a warrant.2 Yes4Yes No, for official acts. Testimony may not be compelled in any case. No, for official acts. Otherwise, yes3 No2
Honorary consular officers YesYesYes No, for official acts. Yes, in all other cases No, for official acts. Otherwise, yes No
Consular employees Yes2YesYes No, for official acts. Yes, in all other cases No, for official acts. Otherwise, yes2 No2
International organization International Organization Staff3 Yes3Yes3Yes No, for official acts. Yes, in all other cases No, for official acts. Otherwise, yes3 No2
Diplomatic - level staff of missions to international organizations No1NoYesNoNo Same as sponsor
Support staff of missions to international organizations YesYesYes No, for official acts. Yes, in all other cases No, for official acts. Otherwise, yes No

1Reasonable constraints, however, may be applied in emergency circumstances involving self-defense, public safety, or the prevention of serious criminal acts.

2This table presents general rules. Particularly in the cases indicated, the employees of certain foreign countries may enjoy higher levels of privileges and immunities on the basis of special bilateral agreements.

3A small number of senior officers are entitled to be treated identically to "diplomatic agents".

4Note that consular residences are sometimes located within the official consular premises. In such cases, only the official office space is protected from police entry.

This chart is copied from the US State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security Web site, http://ds.state.gov/dipimmunities/dichart.pdf.

See also

External links

cs:Imunita (prvo) ru:Дипломатический иммунитет


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