Why Do We Even Have Diplomatic Immunity?

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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Think about all the time and money that was wasted because of Qatari diplomat Mohammed al-Modadi's in-flight antics yesterday. Two fighter jets were scrambled from Buckley Air Force Base to escort the plane. Bomb-sniffing dogs and explosives experts were brought in to search the plane after landing. Passengers who surely had better things to do were forced to wait around the airport to be interviewed by the FBI, with some "still trickling into the baggage area five hours after the plane landed." And yet Modadi — who, according to reports, sneaked a smoke in the bathroom and then sarcastically quipped to air marshals that he had been "trying to light [his] shoes on fire" (HA HA!) — won't face any punishment.

"I think an American would have the book thrown at him" had he done the same thing, Michigan congressman Pete Hoekstra says. And yet, as the Associated Press explains:


Foreign diplomats have broad immunity from prosecution. The official said if the man's identity as a Qatari diplomat was confirmed and if it was found that he may have committed a crime, U.S. authorities would have to decide whether to ask Qatar to waive his diplomatic immunity so he could be charged and tried. Qatar could decline, the official said, and the man would likely be expelled from the United States.

Diplomatic immunity became international law with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961. According to the document, the practice was put in place "not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions as representing States." That makes sense — diplomats have to be able to do their jobs without being vulnerable to petty or retaliatory punishment at the hands of their host country. But clearly, diplomatic immunity in this case did serve solely to benefit an individual. Modadi reportedly even mentioned his immunity to the air marshals who confronted him outside of the bathroom, confident that he could smoke on an airplane (a felony) and then crack jokes about being a terrorist without repercussions. There are exceptions to diplomatic immunity, but they're limited and only apply to the following:


(a) A real action relating to private immovable property situated in the territory of the receiving State, unless he holds it on behalf of the sending State for the purposes of the mission;

(b) An action relating to succession in which the diplomatic agent is involved as executor,
administrator, heir or legatee as a private person and not on behalf of the sending State;

(c) An action relating to any professional or commercial activity exercised by the diplomatic agent in the receiving State outside his official functions.


Can we add "An action related to being a cocky wise-ass" in there?