Diplomatic Immunity Under Scrutiny After US Diplomat’s Wife Flees UK
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is asking the United States to “reconsider its decision” to grant immunity to Anne Sacoolas, the wife of an American diplomat. Sacoolas fled the UK after accidentally killing a British teenager this August.
According to police, Sacoolas was driving on the wrong side of the road after leaving the British RAF base Croughton on August 27 when she hit and killed 19-year-old Harry Dunn, who was driving his motorcycle in the opposite direction. Boris Johnson and other members of the British government want Sacoolas to return to the UK and come in for further questioning regarding the incident.
Sacoolas complied with authorities at first after the incident but went on to claim diplomatic immunity – specially granted outside of London to diplomats and their families based at RAF Croughton under a 1994 agreement—and subsequently left the UK under the advice of the US embassy in the UK. The embassy has confirmed the family involved in the August 27 “traffic accident” has left the country and expressed its “deepest sympathies.”
RAF Croughton is leased out to the US government and about 30 per cent of all US military communications in Europe go through it. Certain locations outside London do still get diplomatic immunity for diplomats and their families.
Sacoolas had been in the UK less than a month when the incident occurred, and her children were attending the expensive and prestigious Winchester House private school, where Dunn’s father Tim worked as a maintenance man. Radd Seiger, a lawyer for the Dunn family claims that Sacoolas’ husband Jonathan was a spy stationed at RAF Croughton and added that “it is, I guess, why it has been handled in the way that it has.”
Sacoolas’ identity was just recently revealed. Johnson said he is bringing the issue forward to the American ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson. If he gets no results, Boris Johnson said he will bring the matter directly to the White House. Downing Street has called the matter “extremely concerning.”
“I do not think that it can be right to use the process of diplomatic immunity for this type of purpose,” Boris Johnson said, adding “I hope Anne Sacoolas will come back and will engage properly with the processes of law that are carried out in this country.”
Dunn’s family is understandably distraught and outraged, pointing out that their son was obeying all the rules of the road at the time of the accident and “was riding perfectly safely that night.” Harry’s father Tim says they are “disgusted, appaled, how she could be having this cloak wrapped around her.” Harry’s parents are incredulous that Sacoolas can live with herself and is so far being allowed to “evade justice.” Harry’s mother Charlotte adds that Sacoolas “must return to the UK to face justice” and failure to do so “would set a terrible precedent.” Charlotte further says police have camera footage that shows Sacoolas pulling out of the base on the wrong side of the road directly into Harry.
Diplomatic immunity is rarely withdrawn by the United States. In the UK diplomatic immunity applies to any foreign diplomats working in the UK and bars UK authorities from entering foreign diplomatic property, which is what allowed Julian Assange to stay for seven years in the embassy of Ecuador in London. According to the Vienna Convention that gives diplomatic immunity in the UK diplomats have a “duty” to obey laws, but they still have the privilege of not facing prosecution if they fail to do so, so it seems rather a tautology. US diplomats were revealed in 2016 as the biggest holders of unpaid traffic and congestion charges in London, with over 10 million British pounds in unpaid penalties.
Although the reasons for maintaining strict protections around diplomatic immunity do have some justifications, the Sacoolas case reveals the various shortcomings and hypocrisies that can be involved. In addition to being a tense point right now in British-American relations, the case brings up stark class division, with the wealthy Sacoolas family able to skate away on their privilege as the working-class Dunn family is left grieving for their dead son. The most corrupt nations in the world are often infamous for untrustworthy authorities and dirty oligarchs who can pay off the law and get away with crimes and accidents with complete impunity. It would be a shame if nations like the United States and the UK became increasingly known for similar reasons.