International lawyers are used to explaining to skeptics the functional case for diplomatic immunity by emphasizing the benefits it provides. Here’s the 5 second version: we want our diplomats to be able to communicate with their host States since the alternative to communication is often (and certainly used to be) conflict. To ensure open communication we need diplomats who feel free to operate without fear of being coerced, pressured, extorted, etc., So, we grant diplomatic immunity to ensure freedom of communication and do so reciprocally as a check against abuses, with the only remedies being waiver or a declaration of persona non grata.
Of course, these benefits do not come without costs. And the British Government at least has been keeping a ledger of such costs. In particular, the City of London would like diplomatic missions to pay London’s congestion charges. It looks like a large number of governments, including my own, have decided not to pay. The running tally of unpaid charges? 67 million pounds! That’s quite a sum, but, it doesn’t even attempt to monetize the costs of the criminal offenses committed (or alleged to have been committed) by diplomats. Here’s how the BBC summarizes that sort of bad diplomatic behavior from 2012:
[T]he Foreign Office was informed of 12 “serious offences” committed by people with diplomatic immunity in 2012.
These are defined as offences which could carry 12 months or more in prison, as well as drink-driving and driving without insurance.
He said 10 of the alleged offences were driving-related, including six for drink-driving – three by Russians.
The non-driving offences alleged were abuse of a domestic worker and causing actual bodily harm.
In the “most serious” cases the UK asks foreign governments to waive immunity to allow prosecution, or to withdraw an accused diplomat.
About 22,500 people get diplomatic immunity in the UK and Mr Hague said “the majority” abide by UK law.
To my mind, none of this outweighs the substantial benefits of diplomatic discourse I referenced above. Still, I do think it’s important to appreciate the costs of doing diplomacy. What do others think — should governments have to pay congestion charges (let alone parking tickets?). More importantly, is 12 serious offenses out of a population of 22,500 a good number or a bad one? And if you think it’s bad one, is there a way to fix the diplomatic immunity cost-benefit calculus without throwing the whole system under the bus?