Diplomatic immunity is a safeguard for diplomats who risk being unfairly punished if there are tension between their country and their host nation. What it isn’t intended to do is make sure that these people of power can commit whatever crime they want without any real punishment. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot diplomats can get away with, and some abuse their power for everything from skipping out on having to feed the meter in obnoxiously crowded cities to smuggling substances without penalty.
Smoking on a Commercial Flight
Smoking on an airplane isn’t legal, and hasn’t been legal in any recent history. There are even no smoking signs throughout the plane, but if you’re a diplomat, what’s a no smoking sign to you?
In 2010, Qatari diplomat Mohammed Al-Madadi decided to light one up on a flight from Washington to Denver. This minor indiscretion turned into a major deal when he made a poorly thought-out joke that some of the flight staff took as a terrorist threat. The whole debacle ended with two F-16 fighter jets escorting the flight to its destination. Because of diplomatic immunity, Al-Madadi wasn’t charged with any crime, but he was sent home to Qatar.
A Free Pass for Slave Labor
“Diplomatic immunity is not a license to traffic, but it’s pretty close,” said Martina Vandenberg, the founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. This egregious abuse of power is something that many diplomats are getting away with, despite how despicable the crime is. This is so much more than not paying a parking ticket.
Between 1994 and 2012, 24 cases of labor exploitation and trafficking have been filed against foreign diplomats in the U.S. In other countries, it’s even worse. In the UK, there were 51 cases of trafficking and labor abuse among diplomats reported between 2009 and 2010, alone. Switzerland actually had the highest amount of reported abuse, with 62 cases.
The Parking Problem
It may not be the worst offense, but it’s certainly an abuse of power. Diplomats at the United Nations have been known to use Manhattan as their personal parking lot. In 1996, diplomats were given 143,508 parking summons which equaled a total of $15.8 million in fines. Of course, with diplomatic immunity, there were no repercussions for not paying up. Russia was responsible for a whopping 32,000 parking fines in NYC that year alone. In a study done ten years later in 2006, economists from Columbia and Berkeley found that the top offender on this long list was the country of Kuwait which had a total of 246 violations per diplomat that year…that’s a lot of parking tickets!
When Parking Gets Violent
Ditching out on paying a parking ticket is one thing, but intentionally harming a citizen to snag that much-coveted parking spot is a heinous crime that you really should be punished for. In 1987, Afghan diplomat Shah Mohammad Dost was accused to intentionally running over a woman to get a parking spot in front of an air conditioner store in Queens, New York.
That certain brand of steamy humidity that reeks of garbage is an infamous New York treasure – one that is certainly bound to cause any citizen to panic when faced with the idea of not having air conditioning in their six story walk-up. Running someone over, though, is a whole different story.
This Was Not the First Offense for an Afghan Diplomat
According Margret Curry, the person Dost ran over, her boyfriend was backing into the spot when Dost demanded they give him the space because he was a diplomat. When they refused, he ran the woman over. It was so bad that she needed to go to the hospital.
Unfortunately this isn’t the first story of an Afghan diplomat being involved in violence. According to The New York Times, three Afghan diplomats attacked representatives of the Afghan rebel movements at the United Nations headquarters in the fall of 1987. The representatives were about to hold a news conference when they were attacked.
69 Cents an Hour
In 2009, a diplomat from Kuwait trafficked a woman named Daedema Ramos to the U.S. She left Lebanon on a special visa for the personal staff of diplomats, but what she didn’t know, was that she would end up being a slave laborer.
Her employer confiscated her passport once she arrived, making it impossible for her to leave. She served this diplomat’s family around the clock – seven days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Not only was she barely allowed to sleep, but she was forced to share a bed with the diplomat’s five children. She was advised to lie about her work to officials at the U.S. embassy in Beirut and lie about her income, so he wouldn’t get in trouble.
Ramos Finally Found a Way Out
Ramos lived under constant surveillance. Her employer would read her mail and constantly verify where she was. If he sent her to the grocery store, he’d call the store and make sure she was there. If she was found awake, she would be asked to do random tasks like roll cigarettes. She was forced to do a number of demeaning things, like eat last at a family dinner after everyone had already finished. She earned just 69 cents an hour.
Thankfully, Ramos found help. While she was at the playground with the diplomat’s children, a fellow Filipina told her about her rights and informed her that the U.S. has labor laws. She gave her the phone number of The Damayan Migrant Workers Association, and Ramos later won an out-of-court settlement which gave her an undisclosed sum of money as long as she never outed the name of the diplomat who abused her.
Egregious Abuse of Foreign Workers
In December of 2008, a woman only identified as C.V. was brought to New Jersey and locked in the home of Somduth Soborun, the Mauritius ambassador to the U.N. She was told an alarm would sound and police would arrest her if she tried to leave. Her passport was confiscated and she was forced to sign a contract that indebted her to his family for two years for a mere $1,000 per month – well under minimum way for her over 40 hour work week.
C.V. was banned from talking to anyone other than Soborun’s family and not allowed a single day off. The tasks she had to do bordered on slave labor and were incredibly demeaning.
Getting off Easy
C.V. had to perform a number of superfluous tasks like re-iron a shirt she had already ironed so it would be warm when Soborun put it on. If his car for work was delayed, she would be forced to iron his shirt a third time. She was also subject to inhumane working conditions. For example, she was forced to wash the floors of Soborun’s five-bedroom, six-bathroom home right after she returned from the hospital after suffering from a major illness.
Eventually, Soborun plead guilty in the U.S. district court to the misdemeanor charge of failing to pay C.V. minimum wage. Basically, he got off insanely easy for the abuse he put her through. He’s currently an ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.
Beating Your Employees with a Stick
Diplomatic immunity is used by some despicable, evil people to abuse those who work for them. It’s often more than just mental abuse and failing to pay minimum wage. Sometimes, these diplomats get violent.
A landmark case in Germany sought to hold diplomats accountable and was sparked by the harrowing tale of a 30-year-old woman who claimed she endured daily beatings for 18 months from a diplomat at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Berlin. The woman was given no money and could not speak German, forcing her to be a prisoner of her diplomat employer. She worked every day from 7 a.m. until midnight, sleeping on the floor and never being allowed a single day off. The diplomat even encouraged his 5-year-old son to hit her.
Thankfully, a Berlin group who helps trafficked women took her to safety, but an earlier court hearing rejected claims of slavery because of the abuser’s diplomatic status. Basically, he got off without a hitch.
Skipping out on Paying Your Rent
Diplomats are above the law, which is why some of them decide they don’t have to pay rent. In 1996, The New York Times wrote a piece illustrating the difficulties of renting to diplomats. Because of a diplomatic immunity, landlords don’t have any legal way they can force a diplomat to pay rent or evict one who refuses to pay.
At the time the piece was written, a West African diplomat in New York owed his landlord $20,000, but there was nothing that the landlord could do unless the tenant’s home nation agreed to let the diplomat be evicted.
Animal Abuse and Slaughter
Diplomats don’t have to follow standards of common decency for humans, so why would they have to lend the same courtesy to animals. In 1984, six Iranian diplomats slaughtered a sheep in public just because they could.
The diplomats stole a sheep from a London home and slit its throat. It’s unclear exactly why the six men chose to do that – whether it was a ritual sacrifice or they just felt like killing something for sport – but there wasn’t much the police could do. British authorities tried to charge them with violating animal cruelty laws, but the diplomats ended up claiming immunity and getting off without a single criminal charge.
Smuggling Contraband Across Borders
Diplomats can use what’s called a diplomatic bag to avoid having their belongings searched at an airport. Many diplomats have used this to smuggle art, drugs, diamonds and cash across the world. In North Korea, a diplomat from Bangladesh decided to not even bother with the diplomat bag and take his own carry-on to smuggle illegal gold through Dhaka’s airport. He refused to let customs officials scan his bag and claimed that his diplomatic immunity protected him from security screenings.
Finally, the diplomat gave in and customs discovered $1.4 million of illegal gold in his bag. Of course, he was never charged because he was a diplomat. Instead, he was sent home by his boss ambassador Ri Song-hyon.
Diplomatic bags aren’t ever searched at airports, which has led a handful of diplomats to smuggle things like drugs and gold; however, smuggling a person?
In 1984, former Nigerian minister Umaru Dikko wasn’t very popular among Nigerian officials. He had moved to England and was speaking out against the Nigerian and Israeli government. Nigeria and Israel decided to conspire to bring Dikko back to Nigeria to shut him up. They ended up kidnapping Dikko and placing him in a wooden crate that was tagged as a diplomatic bag. Fortunately, the plan was foiled when someone forgot to fill out the proper paperwork and airport officials decided to check out the crate because it was moving. Customs saved Dikko and his kidnappers, including a Nigerian diploat, two members of Israel’s intelligence agency and a physician, were arrested.
The Raincoat Theft
If you’re a diplomat, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get into serious trouble for shoplifting, but that doesn’t mean you should steal. Apparently, morality isn’t enough to stop some diplomats from doing whatever they want.
In May of 1986, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, Iran’s chief delegate to the United Nations, was caught shoplifting a $99 raincoat from a department store in Manhattan. Even worse, after he was caught, an F.B.I. agent suggested that he attempted to use the incident to blackmail him. Of course, Rajaie-Khorassani wasn’t charged for shoplifting because of his diplomatic immunity even though he was spotted tearing the tag off the coat and trying to leave the store while wearing it.
Using Your Immunity to Skip out on Paying for Your Divorce
You’d think that a divorce has no bearing on diplomatic immunity, but that didn’t stop one diplomat from trying to use his immunity to skip out on paying his American ex-wife after they split up.
In 1989, Mozambique’s United Nations representative Antonio Fernandez waived his diplomatic immunity card to take his divorce to court and ended up losing his $5 million home in the process. After losing the case, Fernandez took it all the way to Supreme Court, but the house still went to his wife. This is proof that sometimes immunity doesn’t do a darn thing. Maybe he should have tried running his wife over instead.
Diplomatic Immunity for Diplomat Dogs
Usually diplomatic immunity is for a specific diplomat, but one guy tried to extend the same courtesy to his dog. In 1975 a United Nations delegate from Barbados attempted to use diplomatic immunity to give a free pass to his pretty aggressive pooch.
Waldo Emerson Waldron-Ramsey’s German shepherd had bitten several people, including two children. Typically, dogs like this are forced to be put down or contained in some way, but the delegate warned the police of “possible international consequences” if they laid a finger on his dog. He ended up writing a letter to the Mayor of Pelham, N.Y. threatening these unnamed “consequences.”
Dog-Hoarding Still Has Some Consequences
Dogs seem to be a soft spot for many foreign diplomats. This was the case for Mexican diplomat Enrique Flores who had a pack of 10 basset hounds in his Virginia home. Unfortunately, keeping that many hounds violated local zoning laws and Flores tried to find a way around it.
In 1984, Flores attempted to use his diplomatic immunity as a way around this law, which stated he was only allowed to have four hounds at one time. What a bummer if you want to keep a whole pack. He appealed to the State Department using diplomatic immunity, but he was turned down and had to get rid of his dogs.
Stealing White House Phones
Mexican press attache Rafael Quintero Curiel pulled a really nasty stunt at the 2008 North American Leadership Summit. During the meetings, most participants leave their phones on a table in a high-security room. Apparently, it wasn’t that high-security because when White House staffers returned after the meeting, their phones were nowhere to be found.
Someone eventually checked the security camera footage which clearly showed Curiel breaking into the room and filling his bag with all of their phones. Who even knows what those phones had or why they were useful to Curiel, but the White House needed them back, so they took action.
Denying All Wrongdoing
After it was discovered on crystal clear security footage that Curiel did, in fact, steal the phones, the Secret Service rushed the airport where Curiel was waiting for a flight back to Mexico. Perhaps in the boldest move ever for someone clearly caught on camera stealing, Curiel said he had no idea what the Secret Service were talking about. Eventually he changed his tune and said it was accidental (because walking into a high-security room and taking a bunch of random phones on a table is something that just happens with no fault).
Curiel ended up playing his diplomatic immunity card and suffered no repercussions. The Secret Service got the phones back, and Curiel flew home a free man; however, Mexico had the sense to fire him a short while later.