by Duncan Hollis
In order for diplomatic missions to function, international law has long accorded diplomats and their families immunity from all local criminal laws. And when a major crime occurs involving a diplomat, there's often a lot of press attention on the case by virtue of the privileges and immunities (Ps&Is) involved.
But Ps&Is aren't limited to allegations of rape or manslaughter, they extend to ALL local laws, often posing problems for the host State as it tries to police dangerous behavior while also complying with its international law obligations. So, how do States deal with day-to-day misdemeanors or mid-level criminal activities? In Australia, they write letters. As this story in ninemsn notes:
More than two dozen foreign diplomats and consular officials have been warned about repeated or serious driving offences on Australian soil over the past three years.
The offences include drink driving, speeding more than 30km/h over the limit, running red lights, driving while talking on a mobile phone and not wearing a seat belt. But none of the offenders can be prosecuted or even lose their driving licence because of diplomatic immunity.
The offences are outlined in 26 warning letters sent by the Department of Foreign Affairs since 2010 to the heads of various foreign embassies and consulates about members of staff who had lost seven or more demerit points on their licence or who were involved in a serious driving incident that came to the attention of police.
One letter describes a diplomat who lost 15 demerit points from 11 speeding fines in just 15 months. Another refers to a diplomat who was deemed too drunk to continue driving after being intercepted by police on Canberra's Commonwealth Avenue Bridge at 1am on a Sunday. Police only agreed to release him when one of his own passengers agreed to get behind the wheel and take him home.
The story links to the actual letters sent out by the Australian Foreign Ministry - see here. I found the extensive redactions especially interesting -- looking at the documents, you don't know who did what or what government she or he represented. The Australian Chief of protocol explains that disclosing such details could damage Australia's good relations with foreign governments and "their willingness to cooperate and communicate with Australian government officials in the future."
Hmmm. Now, I'm a supporter of P&Is for their functional value -- I truly believe they are a key cog in diplomatic machinery. But, I'm less sanguine about the lack of transparency the Australian letters suggest.