Diplomats who represent their country abroad enjoy diplomatic immunity. This protects them against prosecution in the receiving state for the entire period in which they hold their diplomatic post.
International agreements on diplomatic immunity
The international agreements on diplomatic immunity can be found in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. For instance, the receiving state is not permitted to prosecute diplomats, and must protect them, along with their families and property. The main aim of the Convention is to allow diplomats to carry out their work without hindrance in the receiving state. They can do this only if they do not face any risk of reprisals the latter state’s government.
These agreements are vital to international relations. Diplomats attempt to ensure that relations between countries run as smoothly as possible. This sometimes means that they have to raise difficult issues in a direct manner. In doing so they take into account local customs and sensibilities in order to ensure that their efforts achieve the maximum effect.
The Vienna Convention allows Dutch diplomats to pursue the interests of Dutch citizens and businesses in foreign countries as effectively as possible, even where there are doubts about legal certainty. Dutch diplomats can also use their influence to remind receiving states of their international obligations, for instance to comply with human rights.
Diplomatic immunity: a two-way street
Diplomatic immunity only works if every country, including ours, abides by the rules. The way that the Netherlands treats foreign diplomats has an impact on how other countries treat our diplomats. We must treat foreign diplomats in the Netherlands with the same respect and in accordance with the same standards that we expect of others abroad.
Diplomatic immunity: not carte blanche for misconduct
The Vienna Convention does not give diplomats carte blanche for misconduct. Diplomatic immunity does not place diplomats above the law and diplomats are obliged to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of the receiving state. In the event of misconduct, however, only the sending state has the authority to take action, for instance by recalling the diplomat or waiving his/her diplomatic immunity.
Long ago, diplomats acted as a form of guarantee for the good conduct of the sending state. If that state did not conduct itself appropriately, its diplomat would be held responsible. Sometimes the consequences could even be fatal. Nowadays, the opposite applies: if a diplomat breaks the law, responsibility lies in the first place with the sending state.
International agreements remain indispensable
International agreements on diplomatic immunity continue to be indispensable. Diplomats are the personal representatives of their countries, and can therefore be the targets of irritation, aggression or even unbridled hatred, for instance when the receiving state disagrees with the sending state’s policies. All over the world, cases arise every day in which diplomats and representatives of international organisations require international legal protection.
Fortunately, Dutch diplomats rarely fall victim to terrorism or any other kind of violent attack nowadays. One tragic exception was the killing of the First Secretary of the Dutch Embassy in Tunis in 1991. But there have been some close calls too, in which Dutch diplomats have been held hostage, assaulted or narrowly escaped bomb blasts or gunfire.