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July 19, 2013

An Honor System That’s Not Always Reliable


Diplomatic immunity is vital to the conduct of international diplomacy. But it can be abused. In New York City, for example, we frequently hear of diplomats flouting traffic laws and not paying their tickets. According to the New York City Department of Finance, unpaid tickets totaled $16.7 million through the end of July 2011. The most egregious countries were Egypt ($1.9 million) and Nigeria ($1 million).

Governments are required to hold their diplomats accountable. But as the ticket numbers show, this honor system is not always reliable, especially in a culture of corruption. Unsurprisingly, a Forbes map showed that the more corrupt a nation was, the more likely its diplomats were to be ticket scofflaws.

Diplomatic impunity can extend to situations more serious than parking violations. In 2010, a Qatari diplomat sparked an in-flight bomb scare that led the U.S. to scramble F-16s — he escaped legal punishment.

Under the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities, the United Nations itself enjoys diplomatic immunity -- and has been notoriously reluctant to waive it. Earlier this year, the U.N. used diplomatic immunity as a shield after introducing a cholera epidemic that killed 8,000 Haitians.

It is up to the U.S. to pressure reluctant governments and international organizations to police their officials or, when warranted, waive immunity. Since 2002, the U.S. has withheld parking fines from foreign aid payments. Because of this, unpaid parking tickets are a fraction of what they were in the 1990s. Although not always effective, unconventional levers should be applied when the legal gaps of diplomatic immunity inspire diplomatic impunity.

-Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The New York Times

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