Sunday, October 13, 2019

Privileges and Immunities Meet Social Media This Week

The crash occurred at the crest of this hill 400 meters from RAF Croughton's gate

Diplomatic immunity, who gets it and when it might be waived, is explained in this publicly available source of information. Pay close attention to 2 FAM 221.5, Waiver of Immunity. That topic will feature in the news this week and maybe for some time to come.

You've probably seen accounts of the tragic death of Harry Dunn, the 19 year-old who was killed in a wrong-way driving accident just outside the gate of a U.S. Air Force facility in the UK. The spouse of a U.S. government official was at fault. Because she was covered by full diplomatic immunity, she departed the UK after the crash and will not face the British legal system. News media in the UK have gone wild ever since.

The most sparse and unsentimental story I've seen is this one from the BBC. The UK Daily Mail has the longest and most personal story I've seen: She's the American diplomat's wife who fled after a car crash that killed a teenager. Here, the victim's family recount the full horror of their loss — and the toll it's taken on the twin so grief-stricken he couldn't leave home:
This week the family appealed to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to intervene. He told them the U.S. government had refused two requests to waive Mrs Sacoolas’ immunity. Now they believe the only way to ensure their son’s death is not ‘swept under the carpet’ is to reveal the full detail of his horrific death.

The family’s only hope now is that the court of public opinion will bring pressure to bear on President Trump.

-- snip --

The nation — indeed the world — has been shocked since news of Harry’s death broke last weekend. He was killed near RAF Croughton, a U.S. intelligence hub, in Northamptonshire on August 27. It is said that Mrs Sacoolas was driving on the wrong side of the road when the collision happened.

Six days after Harry’s death when officers from Northampton told them they intended to charge Mrs Sacoolas with death by dangerous driving — for which, if found guilty, she would face a custodial sentence — they asked the charge to be reduced to death by careless driving.

‘They told us two of her children were in the car with her,’ says Charlotte. ‘That broke us. We were really upset for them. How on earth must those children be feeling? They must be extremely traumatised. That was shocking.

‘We were very honest with the police and said, although we obviously wanted justice for our son, as parents ourselves, we wanted to work with the police and courts to get the charge reduced and push for a suspended sentence so she could carry on being a mum.

‘Now looking back we actually curse ourselves for being so understanding.’

Charlotte cries. ‘We’re six weeks on and we’ve had nothing. It’s like Harry’s worth nothing. They’ve swept him under the carpet.’

-- snip --

Charlotte continues: ‘We’re not vengeful people but the longer this goes on and we hear nothing from her, the more the anger mounts. We have accepted this is a terrible accident from day one. I want to hear her side of the story.

She looks at Tracey. ‘We still can’t understand as mothers ourselves that she thinks it was the right thing to do to get on a plane and run away.’

Tracey agrees. ‘In our opinion diplomatic immunity is to protect a diplomat who is in danger so they can be removed from the danger. Anne Sacoolas was not in danger but Harry lost his life. We, Harry’s family, need that justice.’

Some UK news media have played up the class resentment angle, which is fed by the large fees charged by the international school the U.S. diplomat's children attended, and the coincidence that the father of Harry Dunn is a maintenance worker at the same school:
Sacoolas had been in the UK less than a month when the incident occurred, and her children were attending the expensive and prestigious Winchester House private school, where Dunn’s father Tim worked as a maintenance man.

Although the reasons for maintaining strict protections around diplomatic immunity do have some justifications, the Sacoolas case reveals the various shortcomings and hypocrisies that can be involved. In addition to being a tense point right now in British-American relations, the case brings up stark class division, with the wealthy Sacoolas family able to skate away on their privilege as the working-class Dunn family is left grieving for their dead son.

The basic matter of diplomatic immunity keeps being misunderstood - as well as resented - in part because the Dunn family's lawyer and spokesman insists on his own bizarre misinterpretation of the facts, one in which (1) the American spouse was not entitled to it, despite the Foreign Office having affirmed all along that she was, and (2) that diplomatic immunity is routinely waived.
“Our position is that she doesn’t have immunity and that waivers are always granted in these circumstances,” Radd Seiger, a spokesman for the family, told reporters.

Waivers are most certainly not always granted, or ever granted, in these circumstances. Mr. Seiger is way off base about that, but he might be sincerely misinformed. He could have done some superficial research and been confused by the many waivers that are granted on narrow technical grounds, such as when a diplomat testifies in a foreign court, or when necessary in domestic matters such as child custody and support. But in cases such as this one where there are adverse affects to the interests of the U.S. government or its employees, the USG is, indeed, "absolutely ruthless in safeguarding" the Ps and Is of its diplomats and their families, as no less than PM Boris Johnson recently told the Dunn family.

The latest twist, announced today, is that Mr. Seiger has arrived in the U.S. and been contacted by attorneys for the American spouse.
Radd Seiger, spokesman and adviser for the family, told ITV on Saturday: “I have just landed on a flight from London and had a very brief phone conversation with the legal team representing Anne Sacoolas.

“We have agreed to meet each other at the earliest possibility as soon as we can co-ordinate our diaries.”

UK outlets have now published a statement from the spouse's attorneys in which she is quoted as saying "Anne would like to meet with Mr. Dunn's parents so that she can express her deepest sympathies and apologies for this tragic accident."

So, the family of Harry Dunn will arrive in the U.S. today, and they will pursue a media-heavy strategy complete with Twitter, Facebook, and GoFundMe pages, aimed at persuading the American public to demand that their government compel the offending American spouse to return to the UK and face its justice system.

I sincerely hope there will not be a personal meeting between them; really, that would not be in anyone's interest. The spouse has been thoroughly demonized in the British press, and she is no doubt traumatized herself from the crash and its aftermath. More importantly, at this point, the Dunn family is evidently unwilling to accept anything short of the spouse returning to the UK for trial, but we may be sure that will not happen.

Given that impasse, what would be the point of a group hug?

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