Diplomatic immunity protects ambassadors from a wide variety of things, from speeding tickets to taxes. Here’s exactly what it covers and why it exists.
What it entails
As outlined in an article on the UN’s website, the convention “sets out the special rules – privileges and immunities – which enable diplomatic missions to act without fear of coercion or harassment through enforcement of local laws and to communicate securely with their sending Governments.”
Most notably, it includes the following:
Local law enforcement may never enter an embassy without the consent of its leader, even in the case of abuse or emergency. Examples of cases like this is the fatal 1983 shooting of a police woman in London from the Libyan embassy, and the Ecuadorian embassy in London sheltering Julian Assange in 2012.
The host state can never seize or inspect diplomatic documents, even outside of the embassy
All communication between the embassy and the sending state should be free from inspection or interception. Diplomats have a special diplomatic bag, which may never be opened for inspection by law enforcement, even when they suspect it’s being used for non-diplomatic purposes.
Diplomats are immune from civil and criminal jurisdiction, and can never be arrested, detained, or sued without the consent of the state they represent[contextly_auto_sidebar]
In any activity related to their diplomatic activities, embassy staff are exempt from taxes. Outside of those activities, they may be taxed (see article 49 in the original document on the UN website for more information)
Why it exists
Though the current diplomatic immunity law wasn’t created until 1961 at the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, evidence of legal immunity for foreign ambassadors has been found as far back as 1200 BC, as described in this paper from a Texas A&M University political science professor.
In those ancient times, the protection guaranteed by the country hosting the diplomat was necessary to make sure that negotiations could occur. As nation states and complex laws developed, however, it became necessary to protect diplomats from legal structures as well, to prevent persecution hindering diplomats from doing their duty.
While there were a few earlier conventions in Europe that established diplomatic immunity precedents, the 1961 convention codified the rights of diplomats and embassy staff and is currently accepted by 189 states around the world.