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The Sacoolas affair: Diplomatic immunity or special immunity?

Published on 10 June 2020
Updated on 12 December 2022

Diplo Wisdom Circle

When the abuse of diplomatic immunity is alleged to have occurred, it usually refers to diplomatic officers taking advantage of their special status under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) to avoid penalties for misdemeanours, such as ignoring parking regulations, shoplifting, and so on; occasionally for more serious offences. But governments that, in return for favours, grant diplomatic immunity to those who manifestly do not discharge diplomatic functions, or discharge some in abnormal circumstances and might be adequately protected by other legal means, also abuse diplomatic immunity. Both forms of abuse bring a vital principle into disrepute and thereby threaten its application in circumstances when it is properly needed.

A current case in point of the latter kind is provided by a revelation prised by the press from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) about Royal Air Force (RAF) Croughton in the English Midlands, and subsequently confirmed in a statement by the foreign secretary in the House of Commons on 21 October 2019. Despite its name, RAF Croughton is a large US intelligence communications hub, an important cog in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and operates under the aegis of the US Air Force’s 501st Combat Support Wing. Under a special UK-USA agreement sealed in 1995, diplomatic immunity was extended to intelligence officers, among others, on RAF Croughton staff. And it is for this reason that Anne Sacoolas has so far escaped what could have been a prison term of up to five years for killing young British motorcyclist Harry Dunn while at the wheel of a car (reportedly carrying diplomatic plates) being driven on the wrong side of the road in late August. For she is the wife of Jonathan Sacoolas, a US intelligence officer based at RAF Croughton, and the VCDR provides that members of the immediate family of a ‘diplomat’ enjoy privileges and immunities identical to those of the diplomatic officer.

Although Anne Sacoolas initially co-operated with the police investigation, she was swiftly flown back to the United States. Back home, obviously she no longer has diplomatic immunity; neither, perhaps less obviously, does her diplomatic immunity at the time free her of criminal responsibility for the killing of Harry Dunn, arrHarrsince diplomatic immunity is only procedural in nature (Denza, Diplomatic Law, 2008, pp. 311-312). But interesting questions remain. First, did diplomatic law permit the UK government to grant diplomatic immunity to persons working on an air base?

The answer to this question must be ‘yes’. First, there is nothing in the VCDR to suggest that the working part of a mission must only occupy one site, providing that any ‘offices forming part of the mission in localities other than those in which the [main part of the] mission itself is established’ are set up with the express consent of the sending state (VCDR Article 12); hence the legally legitimate view of British diplomats that RAF Croughton was treated as an ‘annex’ of the US Embassy in London. Second, an important purpose of a diplomatic mission is to gather intelligence (albeit by ‘lawful means’) and promote intelligence liaison between friendly states. And third, it is common practice for intelligence officers and their immediate families to be given ‘diplomatic cover’ in embassies, although not always as members of the ‘diplomatic staff’ – an important point in the context of this case. Thus the technicians among them, such as those working for the US National Security Agency (NSA), who traditionally clustered in the attics or in sheds on the roofs of large embassies, will almost certainly be members of the VCDR’s second tier of embassy staff, the ‘administrative and technical staff’. (This was effectively acknowledged by the foreign secretary in his 21 October statement.) And members of this class not only enjoy diplomatic immunity as well (except relative to civil and administrative – as opposed to criminal – jurisdiction when acting unofficially, VCDR Art. 37(2)); but also do not appear on the published diplomatic list. The consequence of this is that the argument – commonly heard in the early days of this affair – that the Sacoolas family was not entitled to diplomatic immunity because the husband’s name did not appear on the London Diplomatic List falls away.

The FCO might, therefore, have been legally entitled to extend diplomatic immunity to US personnel posted at RAF Croughton, but did they need to? This is the second question.

American intelligence technicians at RAF Croughton do not work in an unfriendly state; nor are their cloistered existence and super-protected communications likely to expose them to hostile pressure. Besides, they could benefit from special treatment via the Visiting Forces Act (1952). That service personnel and civilian support personnel of the United States in the UK are embraced by this act is confirmed by the listing of the USA in Part II of Schedule 1 to the Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) Order (1999). The conclusion, therefore, is inescapable. The British government has given diplomatic immunity to intelligence agency technical officers at RAF Croughton because it regards their work as vital and sensitive and because its most important ally, the United States, no doubt asked for it. And it probably asked for it because, apart from the fact that CIA and NSA officers are neither fliers nor civilian support staff of the US Air Force, the Visiting Forces Act provides nothing like the degree of immunity from UK jurisdiction afforded by diplomatic status and, unless waiver were to have been granted in her case, would certainly not have saved Anne Sacoolas from British justice. The easiest way to understand this is to look at the succinct guidance to this legislation provided by the UK Crown Prosecution Service here.

Nevertheless, the political expediency that was the background to the Sacoolas affair has produced an unfortunate consequence for diplomacy. By describing and treating as ‘diplomats’ persons who neither in the popular imagination nor in the understanding of the VCDR remotely resemble genuine diplomats and work in an establishment that is the very antithesis of a diplomatic mission, it has further tarnished the principle of diplomatic immunity itself, as well as possibly made its beneficiaries in such cases less careful about the need to obey domestic laws. Consideration should be seriously given to making all of the staff of establishments like RAF Croughton fall back on something resembling the Visiting Forces Act and, failing this, at the very least, to calling their ‘diplomatic immunity’ something else; for example, ‘special immunity’.

This post first appeared on the personal blog of Prof. GR Berridge and is republished here with permission.

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