I was looking for a parking space in Queens and noticed a pedestrian guarding an available space, waiting for a car that had not yet arrived. What are you doing?
If you’re like most people, you keep driving. But in 1987, Afghan envoy Shah Mohammad Dost stopped the place and demanded pedestrians hand over the parking spot immediately, insisting that being a diplomat gave him the right to take it.
And when she refused, he broke into her and took the place anyway.
Margaret Carey, 42, was sent to hospital in Flushing, Queens, after she sustained a Pencoln Dust 78. Carey later recovered from her injuries, and Dust was not questioned about the assault — thanks to his diplomatic immunity.
There are about 100,000 foreign diplomats, including their dependents, currently living in the US – and some of them, like Dost, have violated local laws and faced no consequences.
This loophole leads many diplomats to cheat the system, according to the new book “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us” (Scribner), by Brian Klaas, which uses a simple example of parking violations to illustrate how they abuse their power.
“In the five years from 1997 to 2002, UN diplomats were cited for 150,000 unpaid waiting offenses—more than eighty a day,” Klass wrote.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to force them to pay, and in 1997 he accused the United Nations of “acting like the worst kind of blow”. But Giuliani’s harsh words had little effect.
The problem was not that it was not possible to issue parking tickets to diplomats. far from it. From 1997 through 2002, they put on tabs that totaled more than $18 million. But while parking laws can be applied to foreign actors, Sean Murphy, a professor of international law at George Washington University, told The Post that “there are limitations to enforcement.”
A 2006 study found that thousands of diplomats are stationed in New York, from more than 100 different countries, but those who did get tickets had one thing in common. Between 1997 and 2002, diplomats from countries such as Sweden, Norway and Japan did not commit parking offenses. But diplomats from Kuwait had an average of 249 parking tickets per diplomat, with one even getting two tickets a day for an entire year.
The ten worst offenders were from countries such as Kuwait, Egypt, Chad, Sudan and Bulgaria, which also scored low in the annual public corruption rating compiled by World Bank researchers.
The study concluded that a diplomat’s willingness to engage in corruption “was indicative of the standards or culture of their home country rather than their personal values.” In other words, “illegal hikers come from a society where officials are taught that rules don’t apply to them,” Klass writes.
In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg launched the “Three Strikes, You’re Out” rule, pulling diplomatic vehicles linked to parking violations and confiscating their red, white, and blue license plates—a status symbol for bad behavior. Three years later, parking violations by diplomats were reduced by 90 percent. Of the few tickets issued to diplomats, 87 percent were paid in full.
Klass wrote that it turns out that “culture is important, but so are the consequences.”
Normally, diplomatic offenses are not dealt with so easily.
Under the Vienna Convention, which was ratified by 187 countries in 1961, diplomats “will not be subject to any form of arrest or detention.” It’s basically a “get out of jail free” card, protecting them from criminal prosecution for everything from domestic abuse to money laundering to garbage disposal.
Raincoats stolen from a store in New York? An Iranian envoy did just that in 1984. Claiming that your German Shepherd, who bit several neighbors in Pelham, New York, was protected by impunity and that any action against the dog would lead to “potential international consequences”? A delegate from Barbados made this argument (and won) in 1975. Is smuggling 40 kilograms of cocaine from Mexico to New York in a diplomatic bag? It was tried (and dumped) by Ecuadorean diplomats in 2012.
There was a time in 1984 when six Iranian diplomats slaughtered a sheep in a London street, and the British authorities could not accuse them of cruelty to animals.
Or when Qatari diplomat Mohammed al-Madadi, on a United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver, in 2010 lit a pipe in the toilet and, after confronting him, made a joke about “lighting his shoes” (a reference to shoe bomber Richard Reed). Although bomb-sniffing dogs and explosives experts were brought in when the plane landed, Al-Madadi was immediately released.
Or when diplomats from Zaire (today’s Republic of the Congo) refused to pay the rent of a Manhattan high-rise they had occupied since 1982, and even though they owed more than $400,000 to their owner a decade later, they refused to pay or evict, claiming diplomatic immunity. (They finally left in 2005, without paying a dime.)
Ask any diplomatic expert who has a favorite story. Craig Parker, Dean and Professor of International Law at London South Bank University recalls a “strange, classic case” from 1984 in which Nigerian diplomats, along with some Israeli conspirators, attempted to kidnap a former Nigerian minister, exiled in London, by hiding him in a shipping crate.
“The boxes were not fully coded as diplomatic baggage,” Parker said. The UK authorities chose to open them and found the defector and the Israeli anesthetist inside.
More recently, the crimes have extended into a string of manslaughter – in August of 2019, Ann Sacoolas, the wife of an American diplomat, beat and killed a 19-year-old motorcyclist with her car in Northamptonshire – to more moderate violence – 63 – Xiang Xiuyi, The wife of the Belgian ambassador to South Korea slapped several employees in a Seoul store last April after they accused her of theft.
Both women claimed diplomatic immunity, and although Sacoolas faces a lawsuit in the UK later this month, both have (so far) been discharged.
The headlines may be shocking, but statistically speaking, incidents of diplomatic wrongdoing are rare, Parker said.
“In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, there were only three cases of ‘serious’ crimes committed by persons deserving diplomatic immunity,” he said. “Dangerous is any case that could result in a prison sentence of 12 months or more.”
The public in general does not agree with diplomatic immunity. Back in 2013, according to a YouGov poll, 41 percent of Americans believed diplomats should be prosecuted for their crimes. In 2019, in response to the Sacoolas case, a new YouGov poll found that 63 percent of Americans and 84 percent of Britons believed immunity should be revoked.
But experts say it’s not that simple.
“The sanctity of diplomats and diplomatic missions is the bedrock of peaceful relations between nations,” says Joshua Muravchik, a foreign policy expert and senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute of World Affairs. “It makes it possible for hostile states to communicate, which they often wish to do, without the fear that their representatives will be harassed.”
In other words, the Vienna Convention was never intended to protect criminals. For the 15,000 US diplomats serving in more than 150 countries, it offers protection from being thrown in jail if a host country suddenly decides to punish the United States for political reasons.
“Fortunately, this protection does not usually lead to ambassadors roaming about as serial killers,” Klass writes. But he adds, “When we say, ‘No one is above the law,’ it is not true. Some people are.”
And when people are above the law, they can do some very bad things.
In 1967, just five years after the Vienna Convention became international law, Sao Bonoat, Burma’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, suspected his wife was having an affair. So he shot her and burned her body in a funeral pyre in his backyard.
When the Sri Lankan police arrived, Bonawat told them that his home was from Burmese territory. He soon returned to his homeland, but, according to the deputy chief inspector, “it seems that no one knows whether he has gone to prison.”