Diplomatic Privilege
Dozens of people have been injured in pitched battles with law enforcement across North Africa and the Middle East, as protests generated by Innocence of Muslims, (aka Innocence of Islam) – a ham-fisted “biographical” film on the life of the prophet Muhammed – continue.

The protests have largely been targeted against US diplomatic premises, in these regions.

Why, though?

I mean, none of the diplomats working at these embassies and consulates were (we presume) involved in the making of the film.

Nor was the movie sanctioned (we can safely presume?) by the US government.

The film’s screenwriter / director Sam Bacile is now in hiding. Presumably, at a location of his own choosing – and not in any of the diplomatic missions in the Middle East or North Africa.

So, why target the embassies?

Well, for one thing, it may be argued (by the protesters) that the anti-Islamic sentiment contained within the movie is representative of feelings held by many Americans – and by many of America’s close allies, in Israel.

And the diplomatic missions are representative of America.

There could also be a more complex and subtle element at work, here.

The feeling that those who fall under the umbrella of consular protection are – by virtue of the international laws governing diplomatic immunity, and a general air of privilege that surrounds them – on a different level, to everyone else.

That the diplomats themselves are above the law.

And – to a certain extent – they would be right.

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations does set out provisions specifically intended to exclude diplomats from the mainstream legal processes of their host nations. Certain rights and privileges are guaranteed.


There’s scope for interpretation and leeway, in individual cases. And a lot of misconceptions.

Let’s start with some facts, though.

Once an Ambassador, always an Ambassador.

As the designated representative of the head of a sovereign state in another country, you are accorded the same rights as would be given to that head of state him / herself.

And you get to keep the title, for life.

So, if you rise up through the ranks (or are appointed directly to the post), you’ll be Ambassador whoever, till the day you die.

In the international arena, the only other title to which this applies is President.

(Ahh, so that’s why they still call Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the Georges Bush, Mr. President).

Sadly, too many heads of state seem to interpret this as carte blanche to use whatever means necessary to remain in office, for life.

But that’s another matter.

Diplomats always fly first-class.

On the strength of your national budget.

Certainly – for Ambassadors and other top-level officials – if it’s humanly possible to foot the bill for the champagne and lounge service, then the bill will be footed.

But, if you’re a mid- to low-level officer, and the nation’s economy won’t stretch to it?

You fly Coach. And like it. Or else.

The diplomatic bag is a license to print money.
A diplomatic bag, also known as a diplomatic pouch, is a container used for carrying official correspondence or other items between a diplomatic mission and its home government or other official organizations.
The “bag” can take many shapes and sizes, such as an envelope, a shipping container, or a packing crate. It usually has some form of lock, and is externally marked to show its diplomatic status. It may only contain articles intended for official use.
The Vienna Convention on diplomatic immunity ensures that “Communications between an embassy and its home government cannot be interfered with.”

So, in theory…

Remember the 1989 movie Lethal Weapon?

Joss Ackland’s band of hissingly evil apartheid-era South Africans, using their diplomatic bags to smuggle kruggerands and contraband across international borders, while Los Angeles detectives Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) blew things up, in an effort to bring them to justice?

Stuff of Hollywood, right?

On July 4, 1984, British authorities were notified that a Nigeria Airways Boeing 707 was arriving to pick up diplomatic baggage. On board were two crates.
One contained the drugged forms of Umaru Dikko, an influential fomer government minister, and Dr. Levi-Arie Shapiro, an Israeli recruited by Mossad, who had himself drugged Mr. Dikko.
Dikko’s secretary, Elizabeth Hayes, had witnessed the abduction of Dikko by ex-Nigerian army major Mohammed Yusufu, and notified the authorities.
Mossad agents Alexander Barak and Felix Abithol occupied the second crate.
However, the crates were not labeled as diplomatic bags. As a result, alerted customs officials were able to open the crates without violating the Vienna Convention, and foiled the kidnapping. Dikko was taken to a hospital, woozy, but uninjured.
The Nigerian and Israeli governments never admitted any connection to the incident. But the UK government immediately expelled two members of the Nigerian High Commission. Diplomatic relations with Nigeria were broken off for two years.
In January 2012, Italy detected 40 kilograms of cocaine smuggled in a diplomatic pouch from Ecuador, arresting five officials. Ecuador insisted it had inspected the shipment for drugs at the foreign ministry before it was sent to Milan.

You can get away with murder.

In January 2001, Andrei Knyazev, a Russian diplomat serving in Canada, drove his car into two pedestrians on a quiet residential street, killing one and seriously injuring the other.

Knyazev had previously been stopped by Ottawa police on two separate occasions, on suspicion of impaired driving.

Russia refused the Canadian government’s request to waive his immunity.

Knyazev was subsequently prosecuted in Russia for involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison. His appeal of the sentence was denied, and he served time in a penal colony.

On January 27, 2011, in Lahore, Pakistan, Raymond Allen Davis – an American embassy employee – shot and killed two Pakistani civilians.

According to Davis, they were about to rob him, and he acted in self-defense.

When detained by police, Davis claimed to be a consultant at the U.S. consulate in Lahore. Further investigations revealed that he was working with the CIA, as a contractor in Pakistan.

The US State Department declared him a diplomat, and repeatedly requested immunity under the Vienna Convention, to which Pakistan is a signatory.

Police officials identified the dead men as Faheem Shamshad, 26, and Faizan Haider, 22. A third person (Muhammad Abad ur Rehman), was struck and killed by a US consulate car responding to the shooting.

In their investigation, police retrieved photographs, from Davis’ camera, of some sensitive areas and Pakistani defense installations; it is possible that he may be charged with Espionage as well.

Some kind of law will catch up with you, in the end.

Okay; parking tickets, then.

In New York City – home of the United Nations Headquarters (and hence thousands of diplomats) – the city regularly protests to the Department of State about non-payment of parking tickets because of diplomatic status.

Diplomatic missions have their own regulations, but many require their staff to pay any fines due for parking violations.

Back in the day, the Autobahn 555 in Cologne, Germany was nicknamed the “Diplomatenrennbahn” (Diplomatic Raceway), because of the numerous diplomats that used to speed through the highway under diplomatic immunity.

YOU can get away with murder, too.
Assuming you kill someone in another country, then seek refuge in your own nation’s diplomatic mission immediately afterwards.

WRONG. Probably.

You’ll certainly generate a bunch of alarming headlines, in the global media. And much hemming and hawing between the host government, and yours.

But – unless the circumstances surrounding your crime are mitigating, in the extreme – chances are you’ll wind up in prison (in the host country, or at home), for a very long time. Or worse.

So don’t try it. Ever. That’s my advice.

And I hope you’ll take it.

See you around.