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Shared Interests Override A Diplomatic Dispute

motorway leading to Royal Air Force Croughton, near the location of the crash that killed Harry Dunn and set off a debate about diplomatic immunity.
RAF Croughton, the base near which Harry Dunn died in a traffic collision. Photo by Steve Daniels (cc-by-sa/2.0).

If there is anything that cops and the general public find equally galling, it is the sight of an alleged wrongdoer walking free – and going home – under the protection of diplomatic immunity.

This happens on a regular basis in places like Washington, D.C. and (thanks to the presence of the United Nations) New York City. Doubtless it also happens in London and other foreign capitals. But it must be rare in the villages and countryside of Northamptonshire, northwest of the British capital, despite the presence there of a sensitive military intelligence post. That post is now at the center of a legal tug of war between America and the United Kingdom.

In August, the wife of a U.S. government employee working at the post was driving away from the base when she collided with a motorcycle carrying a young man from the nearby village of Charlton. The man, 19-year-old Harry Dunn, died of his injuries. The driver who hit Dunn, Anne Sacoolas, left the country soon after the incident. The U.S. State Department subsequently confirmed that, in American authorities’ view, Sacoolas had “status that conferred diplomatic immunities” at the time of the collision. Sacoolas thus triggered a debate about who should get diplomatic immunity and what its limits should be.

International law stipulates that foreign diplomats enjoy legal protection while abroad. They, and their family members, may avoid prosecution for nearly any crime unless their home country chooses to waive immunity, according to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The arrangement is designed to protect diplomats and their families in hostile environments, though critics have suggested the privileges are sometimes misused.

In the eyes of much of the British public, and those of a significant number of Americans, Sacoolas used diplomatic immunity to evade justice and ought to be sent back to the U.K. to face charges. Dunn’s family has been outspoken in their belief that she should return, voluntarily or otherwise. But there is an important principle at stake here, one that is larger than the Dunn case. This is why the chances of the U.S. sending Sacoolas back are quite small. I’d say zero, except that once President Donald Trump becomes personally involved in a matter it is wise never to say never.

Americans of a certain age – Trump’s age, and my own – are highly sensitive about diplomatic immunity. This is because of the 52 Americans seized as hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Their Iranian captors accused them of being spies, which was probably true in some cases and false in others. Regardless, the legal way to treat them would have been to send them home and, if the Iranians chose, to break off diplomatic relations and close the embassy. This, of course, was not how the Iranians behaved.

Trump has not forgotten. He made this clear last week when he declared on Twitter that we have selected 52 potential Iranian targets to strike in the event that country seeks to exact the promised “revenge” for the killing of its Revolutionary Guard’s commanding officer in Baghdad. Those 52 targets, Trump observed, represent one for each of the hostages taken in 1979 and released in 1981.

From what is publicly known, the death of Harry Dunn appears to have been a deadly accident. We Americans like to joke about Britons’ custom of driving on the “wrong” side of the road. But it was Sacoolas who was driving on the wrong side of the English highway when her Volvo collided with Dunn’s motorcycle. She took a Breathalyzer test but was charged only with dangerous driving, not with being under the influence. This distinguishes her case from others in which American authorities have asked other countries to waive diplomatic immunity.

Sacoolas had only been in the country for three weeks at the time of the accident, according to press reports. Her fellow Americans can doubtless picture ourselves making the same mistake. In this case, the outcome was tragic.

The British Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary are caught between a diplomatic protocol they likely have no wish to violate and a U.K. public (whipped up by Dunn’s understandably distraught parents) demanding that they bring Sacoolas back to that country. The Crown Prosecution Service told the BBC that it had begun extradition proceedings through the Home Office, the U.K. ministerial department responsible for law and order. The British authorities likely will go through the full exercise of seeking extradition. That request almost certainly will be denied. Governments, as a rule, waive immunity only in truly egregious cases. The U.S. is no exception.

After the U.S. denies the extradition request, Dunn’s family will face the less-than-satisfying option of pursuing a civil action against Sacoolas in the United States. The probable outcome will be a settlement funded largely, if not wholly, by the U.S. government.

This may be the outcome that Trump sought when he met Dunn’s parents at the White House and offered them an immediate, impromptu meeting with Sacoolas. She doubtless would have sincerely apologized for causing their son’s death had they accepted. Dunn’s parents refused the meeting, however. They were caught unprepared, and said they wanted third-party mediators and therapists present when they eventually met with Sacoolas. They also wanted to meet on U.K. soil; Dunn’s parents were not ready to drop their demand that Sacoolas return to England. They are still not prepared to do that.

In the end, I expect this matter will blow over. There is little choice for these two governments to do anything other than to let it. They can’t say so, but the British Foreign Office probably hopes America will deny extradition, because in similar circumstances elsewhere, they may be forced to protect British personnel the same way. The U.S. State Department noted that “The use of an extradition treaty to attempt to return the spouse of a former diplomat by force would establish an extraordinarily troubling precedent.” It is unlikely that the British have missed these implications.

As Sacoolas’ critics have noted, our two countries have a special relationship. But part of that relationship is a shared interest in protecting the rules that safeguard our personnel around the globe. A tragedy on a British byway is no reason to sacrifice those global interests.

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