There are some powerful people in this world whose names you may not hear until they make a major public mistake. Case in point: Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Up until May 14th 2011, you may not have heard the name of the man who directed the International Monetary Fund. But once a hotel employee accused Mr. Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault during his stay at the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan, his name, career, and reputation were all over the news for the next week. Sure, he’s an influential and wealthy person, so there is speculation about how he will be treated in the American legal system. He is innocent until proven guilty, just like anyone else charged with a crime in the United States. Those interested in the case may also wonder how his status as a French citizen and former leader of the IMF could affect the punishment for such an egregious crime.
As of today, May 24th, Strauss-Kahn is being held on house arrest in a Manhattan apartment. He’s spent time in Rikers Island jail with a $1,000,000 bail in order to prevent any chance of his fleeing to his native France, which he nearly did immediately after the alleged attack. Although Strauss-Kahn is not directly tied to France’s government (he was rumored to run for president soon), this issue led me to consider the impact of the contentious idea that heads of state, ambassadors, and other high-ranking government officials are not necessarily expected to follow the laws in the country they are visiting. If they break one of those laws, they may have “diplomatic immunity” from prosecution. In DSK’s case, the International Monetary Fund says he cannot claim diplomatic immunity because his visit to New York was on personal business and he was paying for his own accommodations. Additionally, he’s now resigned, so immunity may not be a valid argument. Still, the issue of international visitors and the American legal system got me thinking.
Laws and legal systems vary from country to country. Is it reasonable to expect that each government official understand the complex laws of every country they visit? Not in this day and age, according to Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The United Nations website states that this section “establishes [the diplomat's] immunity from civil and criminal jurisdiction, [and that]…immunity from jurisdiction…may be waived by the sending State.” Essentially, a government official can violate laws in a destination country, and depending on their own country’s laws or stance, they may or may not face prosecution at home.
Although it’s very unlikely that any of us will ever interact with such powerful people, it happens in some of the most unfortunate circumstances. For example, in 1997, a diplomat from the republic of Georgia was responsible for a fatal car accident that killed at 16-year-old girl. The diplomat, Gueorgui Makharadze, was driving drunk and speeding when he slammed into a car in the Dupont Circle section of Washington D.C.. The car he hit was thrown into another vehicle, in which the 16 year old was a passenger. As described in thearticle from the New York Times, the United States sought to request a waiver of diplomatic immunity because the diplomat’s actions were so negligent and caused an unnecessary death. The girl’s family, along with some of our own heads of state, wanted to hold this man accountable for his actions. Ultimately, the immunity was waived an Mr. Makharadze served jail time in America and his home country for his crime.
Diplomatic immunity is strongly tied to international relations, but it also has a very real effect on the ordinary citizens of every country. When a visitor is unfamiliar with laws in the area they are visiting, does that excuse such extreme actions? I can understand someone making a cultural faux pas, but these usually do nothing more than embarrass or offend, a feeling which fades after a minute or two. In Mr. Makharadze’s case, he killed an innocent young girl because he chose to ignore tenants of human decency–the fact that driving drunk presents extreme dangers to everyone within the driver’s path.
The issue of diplomatic immunity can teach every driver in America a valuable lesson: protect yourself with insurance if you can. Different laws in other countries are not confined to criminal issues; insurance and licensing laws can also be much different. Additionally, foreign drivers who rent a car in America may be required to furnish nothing more than a valid driver’s license and a credit card. They may be able to drive in heavily populated areas without any insurance coverage to protect the people around them. This is whenUninsured Motorist coverage can help prevent serious financial losses. Consider buying this additional coverage if you can, because it may be nearly impossible to track down a defendant in a car accident and hold them accountable if they are from a foreign country.
So could Dominique Strauss-Kahn walk free? Well, it depends on whether or not he is found guilty. The fact of the matter is that this most recent issue of misconduct on the part of high-ranking foreign officials serves as a reminder of the irresponsible behavior that anyone can exhibit. You don’t have to be the head of a major international organization to screw up, hurt someone, and cause serious repercussions with your actions.