Equatorial Guinea v. France: A Crossroads of Diplomatic Immunity and Political Corruption

A blog post by Carolyn Rumrill, Junior Associate.

The lifestyles of the rich and the famous often attract media attention, especially when the subjects seem to welcome the viewer’s gaze. Nevertheless, when playboy sons of heads of states participate in this lifestyle at the cost of their citizens and the citizens of a nation where they are merely a guest, should they be allowed blanket immunity for their crimes under international law norms? The International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) recently decided the case of Equatorial Guinea v. France, in which the diplomatic immunity of an Equatorial Guinean official accused of major financial corruption crimes was reviewed by the Court.[1]

The basis of Equatorial Guinea v. France starts with the French initiation of an investigation of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mangue, a high-ranking Equatorial Guinean political official.[2] French authorities charged and ultimately convicted Mangue of corruption-related crimes, such as money laundering, which led the authorities to search, and remove items from his Parisian mansion.[3] Equatorial Guinea refuted these charges and sought to shield Mangue and his mansion from prosecution under the Palermo Convention and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.[4] The ICJ declined to review the claim under the Palermo Convention but reviewed the diplomatic premise issue of the claim under the Vienna Convention.[5]

This was a case of first impression for the ICJ and led to a new interpretation of the definition of “diplomatic premises” under the Vienna Convention.[6] The Court allowed France, the “receiving” country, to object to Equatorial Guinea’s attempt to designate Mangue’s mansion as “diplomatic premises.”[7] The Court announced a new test for when a receiving nation may object to a sending nation designating a property as “diplomatic premises.”[8] The test relies on two parts, where a receiving nation must communicate an objection “in a timely manner and is neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in character.”[9] While the majority opinion in Equatorial Guinea v. France may have tipped the balance in going beyond the text of the convention in considering the designation of diplomatic premises, giving receiving countries the power to reject the status of a building, in this case, it was warranted. The Vienna Convention’s purpose is not “to provide a shield for scofflaw diplomats … but rather to ensure that diplomats may efficiently perform their duties and to bolster friendly relations between nations.”[10] Hopefully, this decision will allow for more receiving countries to bring criminal enforcement proceedings against politicians abusing their power to the disadvantage of the people they are supposed to represent and not foster diplomatic tension between nations in deciding where a diplomatic building should be located.

[1] Immunities and Criminal Proceedings, (Eq. Guinea v. Fr.), Judgement, 2020 I.C.J. 300, 5 (Dec. 11) [hereinafter Eq. Guinea v. Fr. Judgement].

[2] Cour de cassation [Cass.] [supreme court for judicial matters] crim., Dec. 15, 2015, Bull. crim., no. 15-83.156 (Fr.).

[3] Id.

[4] Immunities and Criminal Proceedings, (Eq. Guinea v. Fr.), Application instituting proceedings, 2016 I.C.J. 300 (June 13).

[5] Immunities and Criminal Proceedings (Eq. Guinea v. Fr.), Provisional Measures, Order, 2016 I.C.J. Rep., 16 (Dec. 7).

[6] Eq. Guinea v. Fr. Judgement, supra note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. ¶ 73.

[9] Id.

[10] Michael B. McDonough, Privileged Outlaws: Diplomats, Crime and Immunity, 20 Suffolk Transnat’l L. Rev. 475, 500 (1997).

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