Back from my travels. While I was on the road I managed a piece for the Telegraph on the issues surrounding diplomatic immunity in general and the tragic death of Harry Dunn in particular.
The idea of diplomatic immunity goes back two thousand years. The central idea is that national leaders need to communicate with each other fearlessly and honestly, and that to achieve that result it’s worth having reciprocal arrangements to give their messengers and their accompanying families a special privileged status.
Diplomatic immunity is one high-profile expression of this. It allows diplomats to work without fear of legal or procedural threats by the host government. But in return for enjoying such privileges and immunities, diplomats need to pay unambiguous respect to the laws of the country in which they’re posted.
If diplomats routinely abused their immunity and committed crime after crime, this system would have collapsed hundreds of years ago. It survives because only a tiny proportion of diplomats and their close family members who also enjoy immunity fall short of the conduct rightly expected from them. The vast majority respect the weighty responsibility on them to behave respectfully.
The trouble with a sensible view like this is that it comes across as smug/complacent. Wait … don’t you even care when diplomats or people with diplomatic immunity do something awful?
To which the only (unsatisfactory) answer is that wherever any policy line is drawn, there’ll sooner or later be painful cases on one side or the other:
In those cases when something inappropriate or simply illegal by the host country’s laws, it is up to the diplomat’s own government whether to waive that diplomat’s immunity so that host country legal processes might unfold. But it is also an option, as looks to have happened following the fatal collision that killed Harry Dunn, that the diplomat’s own government decide not to waive immunity and quickly withdraw the diplomatic spouse concerned from the United Kingdom. No doubt in this case the sensitive intelligence work being done by Anna Sacoolas’ diplomat husband will have been a factor: Washington would not want British courts asking questions about his role…
How, then, is diplomatic immunity working in this Sacoolas case?
While the US government arguably acted within its international law rights by withdrawing Anna Sacoolas, there may be questions over the exact legal status of her husband in the UK, given the particular work he was doing well away from normal diplomatic circles in London. There are no informal or ‘special relationship’ diplomatic etiquette norms in play here. But I find it hard to imagine that even if Mr Sacoolas was not on the normal London Diplomatic List, he was not covered by binding bilateral arrangements that both sides agreed came to much the same thing.
That said, it looks more than unedifying that a diplomatic spouse from a close ally’s embassy kills a UK citizen in circumstances that suggest at the least careless or reckless driving by the diplomat spouse concerned, and then scuttles to the plane home.
Racing to get away from the UK may be allowed under the rules applying in this case. But is it the right thing to do? No, and everyone senses that.
There looks to a case for subtle diplomacy here. It ought to be possible even within a framework of diplomatic immunity to find a way for Anna Sacoolas and the US government honestly to explain to the Dunn family what exactly happened, and then accept appropriate responsibility and perhaps propose generous compensation.
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump enjoy a good if not rather special personal relationship: they should draw on it to get this one sorted out graciously and quickly.
And something like this seems (of course) to be happening:
Sacoolas, whose husband worked at the US air force station, had only been in the country for three weeks at the time of the incident and she is said to have been “devastated” by it. A statement issued on her behalf by her legal representative Amy Jeffress said: “Anne is devastated by this tragic accident. No loss compares to the death of a child and Anne extends her deepest sympathy to Harry Dunn’s family.”
“She spoke with authorities at the scene of the accident and met with the Northampton police at her home the following day. She will continue to cooperate with the investigation,” it continued.
Jeffress also said Sacoolas wanted to meet Dunn’s parents, Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, to “express her deepest sympathies and apologies for this tragic incident”. The couple are scheduled to fly to the US on Sunday ahead of visits to both New York and Washington DC.
Good, or as good as anything can be in this awful situation. There is (as I see it) nothing to be gained by a high-profile prosecution of Anna Sacoolas in a British court. It would turn into a gloating anti-American circus. Much better in this case to go with ‘restorative justice‘ and help the Dunn and Sacoolas families quietly to meet and try to find a way forward together.
Anna Sacoolas of course no longer has diplomatic immunity in the UK as she has left the UK. So all sorts of murky legal questions might arise if the UK government tries to extradite her to face trial in the UK and/or if the Dunn family tries to sue her in either the UK or US courts. If she was covered by diplomatic immunity at the time of the crash, does that act to shield her from subsequent legal action once she has returned to the USA? My instinct is that it does or should, as otherwise the core stern point of diplomatic immunity would be undermined.
Again, though, what is to be gained by the Dunns or UK taxpayers throwing millions of pounds and years of stress at the litigation needed to try to resolve that one? Focus instead on assembling a generous compensation package for the Dunns as they try to rebuild their lives.