Diplomatic immunity may be intended to keep diplomats from running afoul of local authorities while serving abroad, but some workers take it as a license to act like jerks. While the Vienna Conventions on International Relations of 1961 outline a series of safeguards that protect diplomats from being unfairly punished should tempers flare between their country and their host nations, more than a few diplomats have taken advantage of their privileges in an irritating way. Here are just a few annoying little liberties diplomats have taken.
The most common manifestation of this inconsiderate behavior involves diplomats’ parking. Just ask New Yorkers; diplomats at the United Nations apparently view Manhattan as their private parking lot. Back in 1996, diplomats racked up 143,508 parking summons, which would have cost them $15.8 million if not for diplomatic immunity. Russia alone was responsible for 32,000 of those fines.
A few hundred thousand unpaid tickets look like downright responsible behavior when compared to former Afghan diplomat Shah Mohammad Dost’s antics behind the wheel. In 1987, Dost was accused of intentionally running a woman over in order to get a parking spot during a trip to an air conditioner store in Queens. According to the victim, her boyfriend was backing into the spot when Dost rolled up and demanded they cede the space to him because he was an Afghan diplomat. When they refused, Dost threw his Lincoln into gear and ran the woman over, sending her to the hospital.
Here’s a case where diplomatic immunity didn’t work out quite as well as a diplomat had hoped. In 1975, a U.N. delegate from Barbados claimed that diplomatic immunity extended to his pooch, who had bitten several people. The delegate warned police officers of “possible international consequences” if they tried to contain the aggressive German shepherd. Nice try, but Fido’s not exactly negotiating trade treaties.
A Mexican diplomat got the same rude awakening in 1984. Military attaché Enrique Flores was keeping a pack of 10 basset hounds at his Virginia home in violation of local zoning laws. Even though the laws stated Flores could only have four hounds at once, he appealed to the State Department for diplomatic immunity. The State Department turned him down. Guess they’re cat people.
In 1989, Mozambique’s representative to the United Nations wanted to divorce his American wife, so he waived his diplomatic immunity in order to take the matter to court. Unfortunately for the diplomat, Antonio Fernandez, he didn’t fare well in the case; he ended up losing the couple’s $5 million estate in the decision. Whoops.
Fernandez didn’t suffer from any shortage of gall, though. After losing the decision he attempted to invoke his diplomatic immunity privileges to keep from paying his ex-wife. Fernandez took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, but in the end his former love got the couple’s Greenwich, Connecticut, estate.
Just two weeks ago, a Qatari diplomat ran into trouble on a Washington-to-Denver flight when he decided to have a smoke in the plane’s lavatory. To make things worse, Mohammed Al-Madadi also made a joke that some passengers and flight personnel perceived to be a terrorist threat. Air marshals sounded various alarms, and in the end two F-16 fighter jets escorted the flight to its final destination. While diplomatic immunity kept Al-Madadi from being charged with any crimes, the Qatari government sent him home to help smooth things over.
In 2008, the residents of New Rochelle, New York, found themselves with a common problem: one house in the community had become a real eyesore. It had sat vacant for years as weeds had overgrown the yard, the paint had gone bad, and the property found itself in an ugly state of decay. New Rochelle had a problem, though: the dilapidated house had a sort of diplomatic immunity that enabled it to be that run-down. Somalia owned the house, which it occasionally used to house United Nations diplomats. Since the vacant house was exempt from taxes, the town couldn’t use liens or other penalties to force the Somalians to do a little landscaping. The lesson here: if you want to stop mowing your lawn, join the Foreign Service.
A word of advice to landlords out there: if diplomats want to rent one of your properties, you might want to get a hefty security deposit. Just ask some of Manhattan’s biggest landlords. A 1996 New York Times story illustrated the difficulty of renting to diplomats; landlords really don’t have any legal mechanism through which they can collect delinquent rent or evict diplomatic tenants. At the time the article was written, one West African country was over $20,000 behind in its rent checks for a pair of luxury apartments in midtown Manhattan.
If you or I pulled a stunt like that, we’d be out on the streets. Fortunately for diplomats, though, they also enjoy a special kind of immunity known as “inviolability,” which states that the private residences of diplomats can’t be entered by the host country’s agents without the visiting country’s consent. In short, the only way you can evict foreign diplomats is if their own country gives you the thumbs-up first.
Nobody ever said all diplomats were gentlemen. In 1984, six Iranian diplomats caused a stink in London by taking a sheep from a house and cutting its throat in the street. The ritual public slaughter of an animal is generally frowned upon, but since the men had diplomatic immunity the British authorities were powerless to charge them with violating animal cruelty laws.