What is diplomatic immunity?

The rule of law means that no one is above the law – unless you’re a diplomat. As servants to their state countries, diplomatic agents are government officials, envoys (messengers) and ministers that journey around the world in their country’s national interest, negotiating treaties and developing economic relations between their home and host countries.

In this pursuit of peace between two nations, the job comes with protection from the laws of a foreign power: this is called diplomatic immunity. The level of protection varies based on a diplomat’s rank. The highest is an ambassador, who is protected against any arrest, prosecution or order to testify in court – for anything from parking fines right up to murder. It’s a privilege that’s also extended to the diplomat’s family.

The purpose of this blanket protection for diplomatic agents abroad is to prevent cases of false imprisonment, conspiracy and even torture as political retaliation. There are exceptions to the rule, and if an envoy is believed to have truly committed a crime, host countries can appeal to an envoy’s home nation to waive immunity. The host nation can also expel the individual from the country, branding them ‘persona non grata’, meaning ‘unwelcome person’. This is what American President Barack Obama did in 2016, giving 35 Russian government officials 72 hours to leave the country in retaliation for election hacking.

This modern-day form of international protection was first outlined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961, and has since been ratified by 192 countries. However, protection for official messengers abroad has been around since ancient times. For example, when Rome sought alliances with neighbouring states, visiting Roman envoys known as nuntii were afforded inviolability.

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