You’re looking for a parking spot in Queens and notice a pedestrian guarding an available space, waiting for a car that has not yet arrived. What do you do?
If you’re like most people, you keep driving. But, in 1987, Afghan envoy Shah Mohammad Dost pulled over and demanded the pedestrian surrender the parking spot immediately, insisting that being a diplomat gave him the right to take it.
And when she refused, he drove into her and took the spot anyway.
Margaret Curry, 42, was sent to the hospital in Flushing, Queens, after being hit by Dost’s ’78 Lincoln. Curry later recovered from her injuries, and Dost wasn’t even questioned about the assault — thanks to his diplomatic immunity.
There are around 100,000 foreign diplomats, including their dependents, currently living in the US — and some, like Dost, have broken local laws and faced zero consequences.
The 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, who uses the simple example of parking violations to illustrate how they abuse their power.
“In the five years from 1997 to 2002, United Nations diplomats were cited for 150,000 parking tickets that went unpaid — more than eighty per day,” Klaas writes.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to bully them into paying, and in 1997 he accused the United Nations of “acting like the worst kind of deadbeats.” But Giuliani’s tough words had little effect.
The problem wasn’t that diplomats can’t be issued parking tickets. Far from it. From 1997 till 2002, they racked up a tab totaling well over $18 million. But while parking laws can be applied to foreign representatives, Sean Murphy, an international law professor at George Washington University, tells The Post that “there is a bar on enforcement.”
Thousands of diplomats are stationed in New York, from more than 100 different countries, but those who got tickets had something in common, a 2006 study found. Between 1997 and 2002, diplomats from countries like Sweden, Norway and Japan had no parking violations. But diplomats from Kuwait had an average of 249 parking violations per diplomat, with one even getting two tickets per day for an entire year.
The other top ten worst offenders were from places like Kuwait, Egypt, Chad, Sudan and Bulgaria, countries which also happened to score low in the annual ranking of public corruption compiled by World Bank researchers.
A diplomat’s willingness to engage in corruption “was an indication of their home country’s norms or culture rather than their own personal values,” the study concluded. In other words, “the illegal parkers come from a society where officials are taught that the rules don’t apply to them,” Klaas writes.
In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg initiated a “three strikes, you’re out” rule, towing diplomatic cars linked to parking violations and confiscating their distinctive red, white and blue plates — the status symbol for behaving badly. Three years later, parking violations by diplomats dropped 90 percent. And of the few tickets that were issued to diplomats, 87 percent were paid in full.
It turned out “culture matters, but so do consequences,” Klaas writes.
Normally, though, diplomatic crimes aren’t so easily handled.
Under the Vienna Convention, ratified in 1961 by 187 countries, diplomats “shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention.” It’s essentially a “get out of jail free” card, protecting them from criminal prosecution for everything from domestic abuse to money laundering to even littering.
Shoplifted raincoats from a New York department store? An Iranian envoy did just that in 1984. Claim that your German Shepherd, who’d bitten several neighbors in Pelham, New York, was protected by immunity and any action against the dog would lead to “possible international consequences”? A delegate from Barbados made that argument (and won) in 1975. Smuggle 40 kilos of cocaine from Mexico to New York in a diplomatic pouch? Ecuador diplomats tried it (and got away with it) in 2012.
There was the time in 1984 when six Iranian diplomats butchered a sheep on a London street, and British authorities couldn’t charge them with animal cruelty.
Or when Qatari diplomat Mohammed al-Madadi, on a United flight from Washington DC to Denver in 2010, lit up a pipe in the lavatory, and after being confronted, made a joke about “lighting his shoes” (an allusion to shoe bomber Richard Reid). Though bomb-sniffing dogs and explosive experts were brought in when the plane landed, al-Madadi was immediately released.
Or when diplomats from Zaire (today the Republic of Congo) declined to pay rent for the Manhattan high-rise they occupied since 1982, and despite owing over $400,000 to their landlord a decade later, refused to pay or vacate, claiming diplomatic immunity. (They finally left in 2005, without paying a cent.)
Ask any diplomacy expert and they have a favorite tale. Craig Barker, a dean and international law professor at London South Bank University, mentions a “classic bizarre case” from 1984, in which Nigerian diplomats, along with some Israeli co-conspirators, attempted to kidnap a former Nigerian minister, exiled in London, by hiding him in a shipping crate.
“The crates were not fully marked up as diplomatic baggage,” Barker said. “The UK authorities chose to open them and found the dissident and an Israeli anesthetist inside.”
More recently, the offenses have run the gamut from involuntary manslaughter — in August of 2019, Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat, struck and killed a 19-year-old motorcyclist with her car in Northamptonshire — to more benign violence — 63-year-old Xiang Xueqi, the wife of Belgium’s ambassador to South Korea, slapped several employees at a Seoul boutique last April after they accused her of shoplifting.
Both women claimed diplomatic immunity, and though Sacoolas faces a court case in the UK later this month, both have (thus far) gotten off scot-free.
The headlines might be shocking, but statistically, incidents of diplomat malfeasance are rare, Barker said.
“In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, there were only three cases of ‘serious’ crimes committed by persons entitled to diplomatic immunity,” he said. “Serious being any case that could potentially result in a sentence of 12 months or more.”
The public generally doesn’t approve of diplomatic immunity. Back in 2013, according to a YouGov poll, 41 percent of Americans thought 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 Brits thought immunity should be revoked.
But the experts say it’s not that simple.
“The sanctity of diplomats and diplomatic missions is a bedrock of peaceful relations among states,” says Joshua Muravchik, a foreign policy expert and distinguished fellow at the DC-based World Affairs Institute. “It makes it possible for hostile countries to communicate, which they often wish to do, without fearing that their representatives will be molested.”
In other words, the Vienna Convention was never intended to protect criminals. For the 15,000 American diplomats serving in over 150 countries, it offers protection from being thrown in jail if a host nation suddenly decides to punish the US for political reasons.
“Thankfully,” Klaas writes, “that protection doesn’t usually lead to ambassadors going on the prowl as serial killers.” But, he adds, “When we say, ‘Nobody is above the law,’ that’s 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 Boonwaat, a Burmese ambassador to Sri Lanka, suspected that 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, Boonwaat informed them that his home was Burmese territory. He soon returned to his home nation but according to a Senior Deputy Inspector, “Whether he went to jail, no one seems to know.”