When Diplomats Can Get Away With Slavery

Diplomats are one of the few groups who can consistently get away with enslaving other people. Why? Diplomatic immunity — an agreement between countries which guarantees diplomats can’t be prosecuted under one another’s laws. It’s a great policy when a civil war breaks out, but not such a great one when a diplomat is involved in human trafficking. And diplomats participating in human trafficking is surprisingly common.

There have been at least a dozen cases in the U.S. of diplomatic envoys enslaving servants in their homes. Often, these servants are brought over from the home country to work in the diplomat’s residence or embassy. But when the workers arrive, their passports and freedom are taken away. Workers in these cases have been paid from well under minimum wage to nothing, and many have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse. When the abuse is finally discovered, law enforcement can more the victim to safety. But it’s very difficult to actually bring the diplomatic perpetrator to justice because of diplomatic immunity. Sometimes, the diplomats are extradited to their home country, where money changes hands and the trafficking charges conveniently disappear.

The U.K., too, has been struggling with crimes perpetrated by diplomats. A Saudi envoy to Britain was recently accused of human trafficking and molesting an 11-year-old girl, and a delegate from Sierra Leone was also allegedly trafficking persons from his home country. And despite these and other serious allegations, Britain is barely able to enforce drunk driving fines against diplomats, much less prosecute them for human trafficking. And the new run on trafficking has caused some MPs to call for a renegotiation of diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity wasn’t created to let people off the hook for real and serious crimes, it was to prevent diplomats from being arrested on trumped up charges when relations between two nations soured. Since human trafficking is not an uncommon crime for diplomats to engage in, there needs to be an exception for diplomats and envoys who enslave people in their homes or in other ways. Because as long as diplomats are free from the threat of prosecution, they’ll continue to traffic workers into their host countries.



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