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November 25, 2008

Diplomats Behaving Badly

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Photo Credit: Dutchy/iStock

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Used to be that diplomatic immunity meant a Saudi prince could park on the sidewalk in D.C. and no one said boo. But recent cases involving diplomats who enslaved domestic workers in their homes are bringing the above-the-law status of "dignitaries" into question. In July, a Filipino woman sued former U.N. honcho Lauro Liboon Baja, saying he forced her to be a maid and round-the-clock babysitter to his son for about $3 a day — in his five-story New York City townhouse. The civil case is pending, but Baja's attorneys intend to plead diplomatic immunity. Last year, three Indian domestic workers sued a Kuwaiti diplomat in Virginia for beating and starving them during 18-hour workdays; the offender was asked to leave the country, but no criminal charges were brought. Months later, a jury ordered the mother-in-law of another Filipino consul to pay $78,000 to a 21-year-old woman she'd forced to work (bathing her incapacitated husband, giving friends pedicures) without pay. When diplomats engage in criminal behavior on U.S. soil, their homes cannot be searched, criminal charges cannot be brought, and the worst they face is to be sent back home. The Government Accountability Office reported some 42 complaints of domestic-worker abuse by diplomats since 2000; at least 17 were investigated, but not one resulted in a prosecution. Most offenses go unreported by victims, who fear retaliation or don't speak English. In September, Senator Joe Biden introduced the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which, if passed, would force the State Department to hold foreign diplomats accountable, if not for their parking tickets, then at least for how they treat their employees.

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