Diplomatic immunity says that diplomats cannot be prosecuted in the country they are visiting as a diplomat for. It can be interpreted as saying that diplomats are above the law in the country they are visiting.

If there is a concept that no one is above the law, why isn't the concept of diplomatic immunity rejected in countries where nobody is supposed to be above the law?

I am asking because this has been abused multiple times. Most of these violations are minor like parking, but others are very serious.

  • 13
    Not sure that is "above the law" since it's the law that confers diplomatic immunity. Sep 2, 2020 at 16:24
  • 8
    The main point is that without diplomatic immunity diplomats could easily become hostages. Diplomatic immunity was never intended to condone lawless behavior and such immunity can be waived by the country which endows the individual with the diplomatic immunity.
    – MaxW
    Sep 3, 2020 at 0:00
  • 1
    @MaxW all those people had diplomatic immunity. And the hostage takers didn't care. I feel this makes my point, rather than supporting yours.
    – Jontia
    Sep 3, 2020 at 8:31
  • 6
    @Jontia - Without immunity they could be taken hostage by legally imprisoning them on made up charges
    – paj28
    Sep 3, 2020 at 9:15
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    @Jontia - You're thinking of hostage-taking in the normal, criminal "we're making a point by blatantly kidnapping your people" sense. Without diplomatic immunity, diplomats could become effective hostages by accusing them of crimes and then dragging out the legal process, so that they can't leave, all while the host nation maintains plausible deniability. "Hostage? Don't be ridiculous! He's being held in connection with a criminal investigation." Sep 3, 2020 at 10:38

4 Answers 4


I think one of the best explanations for this comes in the preambulatory clauses of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which codified diplomatic immunity, and which has been ratified by 192 states. It reads:

The States Parties to the present Convention,

Recalling that peoples of all nations from ancient times have recognized the status of diplomatic agents,

Having in mind the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations concerning the sovereign equality of States, the maintenance of international peace and security, and the promotion of friendly relations among nations,

Believing that an international convention on diplomatic intercourse, privileges and immunities would contribute to the development of friendly relations among nations, irrespective of their differing constitutional and social systems,

Realizing that the purpose of such privileges and immunities is not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions as representing States,

Affirming that the rules of customary international law should continue to govern questions not expressly regulated by the provisions of the present Convention,

Have agreed as follows: ...

Diplomatic immunity is deemed necessary for the continuation of international diplomacy because it ensures a country's diplomats' safety from persecution by the authorities. You, do, however, raise a good point that this can often be taken advantage of - some examples that spring to mind include the estimated £116m of congestion charges owed to Transport for London by diplomats, and the death of Harry Dunn in a vehicle collision in 2019.

However, a blanket ban on the prosecution of diplomats precludes a situation where the diplomat's country might call into question the validity of charges against a diplomat, and also prevents countries manufacturing charges in the first place.

In addition, although the Vienna Convention ensures that diplomats are in some ways above the law, it doesn't make them completely immune. Immunity can be waived by the sending country (Article 32), and the host country can always expel diplomats by declaring them persona non grata (Article 9). In addition, there are exceptions to the immunity, for example, diplomats can be prosecuted with relation to any professional or commercial activity they have conducted outside of their official functions.

In general, though, diplomatic immunity is respected even in the most egregious cases of clear wrongdoing, as to do otherwise would be to invite other countries to retaliate with relation to one's own diplomats. It would also call into question the independence of the judiciary, potentially leading to an even worse breakdown in law and order than that caused by a few diplomats enjoying immunity from prosecution.

  • 21
    Also, diplomatic immunity doesn’t prevent the sending country from prosecuting their diplomat themselves. If a French diplomat kills someone in Australia, France might decide not to waive immunity but still charge the diplomat in France.
    – cpast
    Sep 1, 2020 at 14:31
  • 15
    Also keep in mind that diplomatic immunity exists to benefit the diplomat's country, not the diplomat and can be waived by that country. If you have French diplomatic immunity and kill someone in the United States, France can waive your diplomatic immunity. And if they don't, the US can react by expelling any or all French diplomats from the US. Sep 1, 2020 at 22:30
  • 20
    France would be very unlikely to waive diplomatic immunity for a diplomat accused of murdering someone in the USA for another reason: the USA has the death penalty. This is also the reason that a lot of countries will not extradite their citizens to the USA or other death penalty countries on charges for capital offences.
    – Miles Rout
    Sep 2, 2020 at 2:05
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    @MichaelMormon: Yes, many countries can and do prosecute crimes committed by citizens abroad - it's called Extraterritorial jurisdiction. For example, in both France and Germany citizens can be and have been prosecuted at home for crimes committed abroad.
    – sleske
    Sep 2, 2020 at 7:46
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    Besides Harry Dunn there's the, I think, more famous case of Yvonne Fletcher.
    – msh210
    Sep 2, 2020 at 7:59

One element of diplomatic immunity that is overlooked by the existing answers is that it represents an attempt to place the treatment of foreign diplomats in the control of the officials in charge of a state's diplomatic relationships and no one else.

It is easy to imagine a situation where the national policy of a state's diplomatic service and/or the head of state is to pursue friendly relations with a foreign state, but where other officials or lower office holders disagree with that policy - and use their control of lower offices to harass the foreign state's diplomats, as a way to undermine the official national policy.


As CDJB pointed out in their answer, without diplomatic immunity countries would be very reluctant to send any diplomats at all.

In theory, if a diplomat invokes immunity over a parking ticket, this transfers the debt to their home country. The home country can then decide whether they will pay the ticket or contest it.

In practice, however, everybody involved just decides that this is way too much bother and will let it slide.

For more serious offenses, the host country can insist on getting reparations/fines paid, they can also expel the diplomat.

I have been told by the son of a diplomat that any Norwegian diplomat who gets mixed up in something like that will be taken home and then at least fired. Possibly also prosecuted by Norwegian law if relevant.

  • Maybe. But don't countries have similar laws on certain things like you can't kill people, etc? Sep 2, 2020 at 11:22
  • One thing that you could do that CDJB didn't do is draw attention to Article 31 clause 4 of the 1961 Convention.
    – JdeBP
    Sep 2, 2020 at 11:44
  • @MichaelMormon But there may be differences. E.g. the sending country might allow "revenge killings", while the host country doesn't.
    – Barmar
    Sep 2, 2020 at 16:42
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    @MichaelMormon: Laws heavily differ between countries. E.g. in some countries, it is illegal for a woman to be alone with a man who is not either a linear blood-relative (father, son, brother) or her legally married husband. That includes, e.g. taking a taxi. Or leaving the home unaccompanied. Or drive a car. Imagine a female diplomat being arrested for leaving her home without being accompanied by her husband. Sep 2, 2020 at 20:20
  • “In theory, if a diplomat invokes immunity over a packing ticket, this transfers the debt to their home country. The home country can then decide whether they will pay the ticket or contest it.” What theory is this? To the best of my knowledge, this is completely incorrect. In reality, the process is quite different, you don't “invoke” immunity, you just ignore the fine and nothing happens. Usually they don't care at all but if the host country wants to push the matter, they have to do something (ask the sending country to waive immunity), not the other way around.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 3, 2020 at 20:59

Diplomatic immunity is a right that is asserted by the sending country, not the diplomat. It's up to the sending country whether to prosecute the diplomat. They can prosecute the diplomat in their own courts, allow the host country to prosecute in their courts, both, or neither. Basically, the sending country retains jurisdiction over the diplomat. The host country has no more jurisdiction over the diplomat than if the diplomat had committed the crime in the sending country. Just as the US not being able to prosecute a French person who commits a crime in France doesn't mean that person is "above the law", the US not being able to prosecute the French diplomat for a crime they commit in the US doesn't mean they're above the law.

A diplomat is in the host country as a representative of the sending country, and has no personal criminal liability towards the host country. Anything they do is on behalf of the sending country, and it's the sending country in general, not the diplomat personally that is held responsible. There are similarities towards treating of foreign military: invading soldiers are not subject to the criminal courts of the country they are invading (assuming they are in uniform, following orders, not committing war crimes, etc.). They can be detained as POWs, but not criminally prosecuted. It's their country, not them personally, that are held responsible.

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