(Un)diplomatic relations?: The diplomatic immunity row over Anne Sacoolas intensifies

November 16, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The fatal crash in August 2019 that killed British teenager, Harry Dunn, involving US citizen, Anne Sacoolas, has escalated to a row about diplomatic immunity, after Sacoolas flew back to the US in a US Air Force plane.

What does this mean?

In the UK, diplomatic immunity is protected by the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964 and 1961 Vienna Convention, meaning foreign diplomats and their families (without British citizenship) cannot be arrested or prosecuted. However, those entitled to immunity are expected to obey the law.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has stated that Sacoolas forfeited her diplomatic immunity by returning to the USA, despite telling police she had no intention to leave the UK, making her a fugitive from British justice.

A media storm in the UK led to the Dunn family flying to Washington D.C. to petition President Trump to force Sacoolas to return to the UK. Northamptonshire Police will fly out to interview Sacoolas under caution, and her most severe charge could be “death by dangerous driving”.


What's the big picture effect?

Northamptonshire Police are under the spotlight as to whether they missed two opportunities to arrest Sacoolas – at the scene, and at her home the following day – or whether they were pressured by the Foreign Office or US Embassy to not do so.

For obvious reasons, the list of US diplomats is not exhaustive and does not include intelligence officers, like Sacoolas’ husband. This has raised doubts about whether Sacoolas was able to claim diplomatic immunity in the first place.

In fact, Raab revealed that an application to waive Sacoolas’ immunity was refused, despite the Police only being informed of the decision after Sacoolas had left the country. The Dunn family were told a week later, despite warnings from the US Embassy to the Foreign Office.

Regardless, Raab is now promising a review of the immunity arrangements of US personnel stationed at RAF Croughton, Sacoolas’s husband’s base. This could indicate a cooling in the “special relationship” as, despite the British Prime Minister calling the President personally, Trump’s briefing notes for the press conference proved it had already been decided that Sacoolas would not return to the UK.

Only the diplomat’s own state can waive their immunity. This could only occur if the US trusts the UK’s court system; but there are fears this may be another example of “American exceptionalism”, namely a refusal to allow US citizens to be extradited and tried abroad, particularly those working in intelligence and their family members.

In light of this tragic incident, many are calling for a general review of how diplomats use their immunity and the potential to abuse the system. Diplomats residing in the UK have been known to use their special status to avoid congestion charge, parking fines and more serious charges, like child pornography. Now, Harry Dunn’s family are demanding records of emails, messages and notes between the Foreign Office and Northamptonshire Police and threatening a judicial review if they don’t receive satisfactory answers. They are planning a civil lawsuit against the US government if Sacoolas does not return to the UK.

Report written by Hannah-Mei Grisley

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