The most borrowed new book at the United Nations’ headquarters library last year was a curious title: Immunity of Heads of State and State Officials for International Crimes. Some wondered why UN staff were suddenly so interested in a tome examining how diplomats can avoid criminal charges abroad. But I can’t say it came as much of a surprise to me. I’ve noted with serious concern over recent years the disturbing trend of diplomats using their privileges of immunity to avoid justice. The world needs to wake up to the true extent of this scandal, especially when you consider there are around 20,000 diplomats currently entitled to immunity from the UK courts alone.
Citing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations – originally introduced in 1961 to protect ambassadors and heads of state from the perils of working in hostile environments – diplomats have been regularly evading justice in both civil matters and criminal cases, ranging from parking fines to the possession of fire arms. It has become such a problem in the UK that Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was last year moved to reveal how diplomats serving in Britain had racked up more than £87 million in unpaid congestion charges since 2003.
If any further evidence were needed of the farcical use and abuse of immunity, it came last week at the High Court in London, where Saudi diplomat Walid Juffali was attempting to halt a claim by his ex-wife for a legally binding settlement and a share of his £4bn fortune. As St Lucia’s Permanent Representative to the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Mr Juffali asserts that he has full protection from the British justice system – a right he is apparently only too happy to exercise in a bid to protect his wealth, following the breakdown of his 13-year marriage to former supermodel Christina Estrada. Mr Juffali has not attended a single meeting of the London-based IMO since his appointment, holds no qualifications in shipping or maritime law, and has no obvious connection to St Lucia.
The stunning fortuity of the appointment’s timing cannot be ignored either. After separating from Ms Estrada in October 2013, Mr Juffali is alleged to have visited the Caribbean island for the first time less than two months later. Within 12 weeks the IMO was notified of the St Lucian government’s request to appoint him to the role. On the September 4 2014 he was finally added to the London Diplomatic List. Just 13 days later, once immunity was secured, he divorced Ms Estrada in Saudi Arabia without her knowledge.
As former President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, I’m struggling to think of any more cowardly abuse of the mighty institution that is diplomatic immunity . But beyond the specifics of the case, these proceedings should also be seen as a test for the British legal system. If Mr Juffali is successful in having his wife’s claim for financial relief struck out by the courts, and Kenny Anthony’s government in St Lucia is allowed to maintain its stance of simply sticking two fingers up at the Foreign Office, then I have no doubt it will set a precedent across the entire international community.
Corrupt and morally-bankrupt regimes will become a magnet for wealthy people simply looking for protection from the law. Indeed elite law firms are already rumoured to have been approached by super-rich individuals wanting to “do a Juffali” and obtain similar diplomatic privileges as a direct result of this case. Is the international community really prepared to accept the prospect of wealthy fraudsters and crooks – perhaps the next Bernie Madoff, criminals like drug kingpin El Chapo or even sponsors of terrorism – skirting around legitimate justice systems simply because they hold a diplomatic passport from an impoverished nation?
It is scandalous that the St Lucia government is facilitating Mr Juffali’s attempts to avoid justice, and the very fact they have chosen not to waive his immunity makes a mockery of the Vienna Convention. Waiving his immunity would clearly not affect his ability to carry out any diplomatic duties. I recall a case in 2003 where Jairo Soto-Mendoza, then secretary to the Colombian Embassy’s military attaché in London, cited immunity after being accused of murdering a mugger who had robbed his son. His immunity was waived by Colombia to allow him to face a trial – the proper thing to do. He was found not guilty.
Abuse of diplomatic privileges cannot be tolerated. St Lucia’s diplomats at the UN should be entitled to immunity, but it is difficult to see what Mr Juffali has done to garner his status, and what job he actually undertakes for them. Should the courts decide to uphold his immunity, I genuinely believe it may be time to re-examine the Vienna Convention to ensure this can’t happen again.
• Mark Stephens is an ex-President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and a human rights lawyer at London-based law firm Howard Kennedy.