Last week, lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn asked a judge to dismiss a sexual assault lawsuit against him, saying Strauss-Kahn was entitled to immunity under the protections adopted in 1947 at the Convention of the Privileges and Immunities of Specialized Agencies. Nafissato Diallo, the housekeeper who accused Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her in his suite at the Sofitel Hotel, filed a civil suit against him last month in the Bronx after prosecutors dropped the criminal charges brought against him in Manhattan.
The 1947 United Nations convention states that heads of specialized agencies are immune from civil and criminal suits, regardless of whether they were acting in their official capacity when the alleged harm took place. Even though lawyers and scholars say there are some serious holes in Strauss-Kahn’s claim (i.e. whether Strauss-Kahn is actually a diplomat, the fact that the convention is a “relatively weak treaty that hasn’t been tested”, and the fact that the United States is not a party to the treaty), this situation seems to address the larger issue that foreign officials may be quick to claim diplomatic immunity whenever they are arrested or charged with a crime. In fact, when Strauss-Kahn was taken off an Air France flight back in May on suspicion of attempted rape, he claimed that he had diplomatic immunity. Diplomatic immunity has also made it possible for diplomats and their families to escape prosecution for crimes ranging from shoplifting, to driving under the influence of alcohol, assault, rape and even murder.
The general principal of diplomatic immunity is also one that is abused by officials time and time again. This abuse can take the form of cars with diplomatic license plates being double parked on New York City streets, to not paying rents and fees. New York City regularly protests to the Department of State about non-payment of parking tickets because of diplomatic status, thus obviously resulting in a decent loss of revenue for the city. Additionally, United Nations staffers across the globe have been shielded by court orders for child support and alimony payments on the grounds of diplomatic immunity.
Do the costs of the principal of diplomatic immunity outweigh the benefits? Is diplomatic immunity too over-inclusive? And lastly, is it possible that the time has come for diplomatic immunity to be reformed?