Why are diplomats free to abuse in America?

Watching Dominique Strauss-Kahn plummet from managing director of the International Monetary Fund to criminal defendant, one could be forgiven for believing that diplomats do not get away with crimes committed in the United States. But one would be wrong.

Strauss-Kahn had functional immunity as head of the IMF, so only acts that fell within his official duties were covered. But if Strauss-Kahn had been a diplomat, even a low-ranking attaché, this story might have been quite different.

Envoys posted to the United States, like their American counterparts posted abroad, enjoy full diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. But in almost all cases, this immunity translates into impunity when those diplomats commit crimes. Nowhere is that impunity more apparent than in abuse of foreign nationals brought to the United States to work as servants in diplomatic households.

Diplomats serving in the United States can bring domestic servants into the country on visas available only to diplomatic personnel. And while the diplomats sign contracts with the workers promising compliance with all U.S. labor laws, gross violations are not uncommon.

The Freedom Network, a coalition of anti-trafficking organizations, reports that dozens of domestic workers employed by diplomats in the United States have made allegations of rape, sexual assault, forced labor, involuntary servitude, labor law violations and human trafficking against their employers. The Government Accountability Office cited 42 abuse cases in a 2008 report while acknowledging that the cases were probably underreported. The ACLU filed a petition in 2007 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of six domestic workers who alleged their diplomat employers abused them in the United States.

None of these cases can be found on a criminal docket. In each instance, the diplomat has walked.

Take the case of Badar Al-Awadi, formerly the third secretary at the Kuwaiti Mission to the United Nations. He and his wife brought an Indian domestic worker to the United States in 1996 to care for their children and serve as a housekeeper. In a civil complaint filed in federal court in New York, the domestic worker alleged that she ran away after enduring four years of forced labor, rape and mistreatment by her employers. The plaintiff first filed in 2002, and the court dismissed her case without prejudice in 2005 because of diplomatic immunity. She refiled in 2006, and the case is still pending.

Al-Awadi did not face prosecution in the United States; nor was he punished by his employer. Rather, the Kuwaiti government hired a prominent law firm to defend him in the civil case — in court filings, he has denied the allegations — and then promoted him. He is currently Kuwait’s ambassador to Cuba.

Or consider the case of Alan S. Mzengi, the former minister plenipotentiary for consular and social affairs at the Tanzanian Embassy in Washington. In a lawsuit filed in federal court, a young woman alleged that Mzengi trafficked her into the United States for forced labor. Upon arrival, her complaint stated, she was stripped of her passport, forbidden to leave the house and subjected to 16-hour days as a nanny/housekeeper without any payment. The Justice Department did not pursue the case, but even if it had, Mzengi’s immunity protected him from prosecution.

I serve as pro bono counsel to the victim in the Mzengi case. She obtained a $1 million default civil judgment against Mzengi and his wife, after both defendants failed to respond to the lawsuit. A federal judge, after hearing the victim testify, called the Mzengis’ conduct “heinous” and found that the victim was “a prisoner” in the defendants’ home. Mzengi — who tried to reopen the judgment and denied the allegations — simply left the United States. According to Time Magazine, Mzengi now serves as an adviser to the president of Tanzania.

While the U.S. government can request that the diplomat’s home government waive immunity, such requests almost never occur. On the rare occasions they do, the other state declines.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue of diplomatic trafficking in a Cabinet-level meeting Feb. 1. She declared, “Whether they’re diplomats or national emissaries of whatever kind, we all must be accountable for the treatment of the people that we employ.” As a start, the State Department should suspend certain governments from the privilege of bringing domestic workers into the United States.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires the secretary of state to suspend countries from the special visa program if there is credible evidence of abuse of domestic workers, and where the mission is found to have tolerated abuse. Tolerance is left undefined in the statute, but multiple allegations in one mission speak volumes. Kuwait faces three federal civil lawsuits alleging trafficking, forced labor, physical abuse and exploitation of domestic workers by diplomats. Two of those cases involve allegations of rape.

The judgment against Mzengi, the Tanzanian diplomat, remains unpaid. Earlier this year, the Tanzanians made a settlement offer designed more to mollify the State Department than to compensate the victim.

In short, tolerance of abuse remains the norm, and Tanzania and Kuwait fall squarely under the 2008 law. Both should be suspended without delay. Like the victim alleging sexual assault in the Strauss-Kahn case, women abused and exploited by diplomats serving in the United States deserve justice. While a wrist slap to their embassies through visa suspension is hardly an end to impunity, it is a good place to start.

Martina E. Vandenberg, an attorney in Washington who represents human trafficking victims pro bono in federal lawsuits brought under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

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