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Redefining The US’s Diplomatic Immunity Policy After Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Looks like things just aren’t going Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s way anymore.  The former International Monetary Fund chief has just been formally indicted by a grand jury for charges stemming from his alleged rape of a 32-year-old maid in a Manhattan hotel.  The only question now is if only any of these charges will stick or even matter.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, Strauss-Kahn was in New York for business where he staying in the swanky and insanely expensive $3,000 a night Sofitel New York Hotel.  Aside from the fact that there were plenty of reasonably priced Hyatts to stay in which would’ve put much less of a strain on the IMF’s pocketbook, the real action took place in Strauss-Kahn’s hotel room when a maid came into his room to clean.  After announcing herself and entering Strauss-Khan’s room when she didn’t hear any response, the renowned womanizer emerged nude from the bathroom and allegedly grabbed the maid, restraining her, and forcing her to perform oral sex on him.  After the assault, Strauss-Kahn immediately left the hotel and attempted to board a flight back to his native France, but was stopped before he could leave and was taken into custody.

Up until that point, Strauss-Kahn was considered the frontrunner to be France’s Socialist Party’s candidate for the French presidency.  Now he’s currently awaiting trial in a jail cell in New York.  Though America’s criminal law system is one that is based on the notion of all defendants being presumed innocent until proven guilty, Strauss-Kahn doesn’t necessarily have the best rap sheet when it comes to allegations of sexual assault.  And yes, I’m aware that the federal rules of evidence prevent the use of one’s prior bad acts to be used as evidence against a defendant – try telling that to a jury.  If any of the numerous exceptions to this rule allow a jury to hear what he’s been up to, I’d think it be quite hard for any juror to not think he’s a total scumbag and put Strauss-Kahn behind bars where he belongs.

The only problem is that IMF officials enjoy a limited form of diplomatic immunity, which if you’re old enough to have watched “Lethal Weapon 2,” you’ll know that it allows visiting representatives from other countries to be immune from being prosecuted for violating US laws.  Diplomatic immunity was first ratified into US federal law in 1972 when the country became a signatory to the Vienna Convention.

However, for Strauss-Kahn the immunity privilege has already been held by the US State Department to not apply to him in this situation.  The reason is because the privilege can only be invoked when an official commits a crime while acting within their official capacity.  In Strauss-Kahn’s case, he wasn’t doing anything for the IMF at the time of the alleged assault.  He wasn’t pontificating on any financial policies or writing up legislation; he was simply hanging out in his hotel room when he allegedly decided to attack the maid.

Though it would seem that the country is out of the woods regarding any worries that Strauss-Kahn may be untouchable by the law, the fact remains that this event should really inspire us to re-examine how our government treats its current stance on diplomatic immunity.  The original intent of the privilege was to ensure reciprocity of immunity between foreign host countries for our country’s representatives.  And to prevent abuse, the Vienna Convention stipulates that the immunity could only extend to actions undertaken while conducting work in the representative’s official capacity.  Though this would seem to act as a safeguard to stop the kind of misuse portray in “Lethal Weapon 2,” the problem is that there are too many loopholes that allow foreign nationals to escape prosecution even when our courts rule that no immunity privilege exist.

For existence, foreign diplomats can simply leave the country to escape prosecution without fear that they will be extradited back into the US.  Why?  Because the Vienna Convention fails to provide any enforcement procedures for officials that have left U.S. jurisdiction.  Had Strauss-Kahn been able to make it back to France, the US would have been powerless to do anything to bring him back.

Roman Polanski is a perfect example of the lack of teeth the US has when it comes to forcing a foreign country to return a defendant who has escaped the US criminal justice system.  As you may remember, Polanski was actually convicted in court for violently raping a minor.  After escaping to France, the US has never been able to get to him again, and he was just a private citizen.  There have been numerous cases of other diplomats and foreigners like Strauss-Kahn evading prosecution by leaving the country.  Federal court records show at least 12 different lawsuits against foreign diplomats in the last 5 years alone, many of them share similar facts to Strauss-Kahn’s case where domestic workers are subjected to some form of abuse.

So what’s the solution to all of this?  The answer is simple; the US must enact an extradition treaty between the countries in which it grants diplomatic immunity in order to prevent these types of injustices from continuing to happen.  Because as the policy stands today, the US is left in a position where its laws have no bite.

Ken LaMance

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