Commentary: Motorcycle tragedy is a real test for Boris Johnson
AP

Commentary: Motorcycle tragedy is a real test for Boris Johnson

  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}
Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses US business leaders at Hudson Yards in New York on Sept. 24, 2019, after judges at the Supreme Court in London ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's advice to the Queen to suspend Parliament for five weeks was unlawful.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses US business leaders at Hudson Yards in New York on Sept. 24, 2019, after judges at the Supreme Court in London ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's advice to the Queen to suspend Parliament for five weeks was unlawful. (Stefan Rousseau/Pa Wire/Abaca Press/TNS)

It is every family's worst nightmare: a traffic accident that takes the life of a loved one, often through no fault of their own. Such incidents are usually an agonizing, private tragedy for those involved. The allegations in the case of 19-year-old Harry Dunn, however, are a matter of transatlantic diplomacy and threaten to become an embarrassment to the British prime minister Boris Johnson.

They are also a reminder that diplomatic immunity is often used as a shield in ways that were never intended. Johnson, who once criticized the absurdity of the protections offered, can't let his voice be muffled this time by his need to keep the Americans onside after Brexit.

On Aug. 27, Dunn's motorcycle collided head-on with a Volvo outside a U.S. intelligence base about 70 miles northwest of London; he suffered multiple injuries and was later pronounced dead. Dunn's devastated family say they were told by police that they believe the Volvo driver was traveling on the wrong side of the road.

The driver of the vehicle, named as 42-year-old Anne Sacoolas, is the wife of a U.S. diplomat who may have only been in the country for a short period. Police reported that she was cooperative initially and had no plans to leave the country. But after Dunn's death, Sacoolas claimed immunity and returned to the U.S. with her family.

The case has sparked outrage in the U.K. Harry Dunn and his family have suffered the ultimate irreversible harm, but they seem to have no recourse at all. Under the 1961 Vienna Convention, diplomats and their families are protected from prosecution in their host country, though the principle dates back thousands of years.

It has survived so long for good reason. Not all judicial systems were independent or trustworthy. During the Cold War, there was always the danger that a honeytrap might ensnare a diplomat. But a road in Northamptonshire in 2019 is a long way from such dangers. In recent decades, immunity seems to be abused by diplomats more often than correctly invoked.

Waivers of diplomatic immunity are, in practice, rare. Some years ago the Daily Telegraph revealed that the Metropolitan Police made 19 applications for such waivers in the five years to 2007 and most were rejected. A French diplomat accused of assault was sent home. Saudi officials escaped having to account for allegations of indecent assault and drug-dealing.

Yet this isn't just a problem of serious crimes and misdemeanors. If you included parking violations and other smaller offences, diplomatic law-breaking would count for a significant waste of time and resources for the London police.

As London mayor, Johnson regularly criticized the U.S. ambassador Robert Tuttle for failing to pay the city's daily 8 pound ($9.90) congestion charge over three years. "I think it's the Geneva Convention which prevents me from slapping an 'asbo' on every single diplomat who fails to pay, I think it's an unbelievable scandal," Johnson said at the time, referring to the Anti-Social Behavior Order penalty that was often used back then against London's young hooligans.

On Monday Johnson broke his silence on Dunn, calling on the U.S. embassy to waive immunity and saying he'd raise the issue with the White House personally. He treads a fine line. His predecessor Tony Blair never lived down accusations that he was George W. Bush's "poodle"; Johnson is struggling to appease Trump's sensitivities on Iran and Huawei, both areas where the U.K. disagrees with the president.

Brexit complicates things. Trump's promise of a U.S./U.K. trade deal has become a cornerstone of Johnson's promise that Brexit will be a success. But the Trump impeachment proceedings have been noted in Westminster. Johnson is often compared to the American president; their chumminess will look less advantageous the more trouble Trump finds himself in.

Were immunity to be lifted and Sacoolas found to have caused death by dangerous driving, she might not be sent to prison. Sentences of up to 14 years can be handed down if the offender is under the influence of drink or drugs. But the maximum custodial term for death by "careless or inconsiderate driving" is five years and that is reserved "for rare cases when the blame is exceptionally high." We're not likely to find out anway.

Could there be a better system? The renowned trial lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has argued that countries should either waive immunity or submit to an international court in criminal cases, with judges from the involved nations. "Any country that chooses to protect an embassy official against prosecution must be treated with the contempt it deserves: Its ambassador should be carpeted, any aid budget reviewed and full details of charges and evidence released to the media," Robertson wrote nearly a decade ago. It's hard to live up to such ideals when your entire post-Brexit strategy is about keeping one country happy.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

Visit Bloomberg News at www.bloomberg.com

0
0
0
0
0

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

President Trump has offered multiple lines of defense against House Democrats' allegations that he appeared to abuse the power of his office in his dealings with Ukraine's new government. Some are situational and temporary, such as his argument that the process was illegitimate because it hadn't been authorized by a vote of the full House (which it now has been). But one that we are likely to ...

The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures." But the Supreme Court has interpreted that protection pretty loosely when it comes to traffic stops, for which the police need only "reasonable suspicion" that the law is or has been broken. (The same indulgent standard applies when police stop and frisk a pedestrian.) Last week the justices heard arguments in a case that ...

When I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie from West Berlin to East Berlin nearly 30 years ago, the failures of former East Germany were immediately obvious. The grey unkempt landscape and dilapidated buildings looked as though that country hadn't been repaired since American and Soviet tanks faced off yards apart decades earlier in one of the most tense nuclear showdowns. While there, I ...

  • Updated

Even before his ill-advised mockery of President Trump's request for "a favor" from new Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) was seen by Republicans as blinded by bias against Trump. And now that Schiff is leading the initial phase of the House impeachment inquiry, he has become Exhibit A in the GOP argument that the whole thing ...

It's an all but foregone conclusion that the House of Representatives will impeach Donald Trump, and it is almost as certain that the Senate will not convict him. For those convinced of the president's venality, the latter prospect makes it imperative that the formal indictment in the House - the articles of impeachment - be detailed and all-encompassing. The articles' content, the exact way ...

Republicans have been engaging in some interesting contortions in conjuring a defense for President Donald Trump's attempt to get Ukrainian officials to investigate the family of political rival Joe Biden. The most plausible approach is one Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey signed on to last month, saying that he is keeping an open mind but that even if Trump asked Ukraine for a favor, the offense ...

Left without remedy, an injustice does not heal. It compounds. This is the fundamental principle behind a 2006 lawsuit filed by a coalition concerned for Maryland's four historically black colleges and universities: Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. It alleges that the state funded largely white institutions ...

On Nov. 1, presidential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced a proposal billed as a financing plan for "Medicare for All." Unfortunately, it does not even acknowledge, let alone finance, the costs of Medicare for All. There is an analytical consensus on the approximate costs of Medicare for All, to which my 2018 study for the Mercatus Center has contributed - as have studies ...

Thirty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War. Where there had been two superpowers locked in a dangerous decades-long post-World War II rivalry, only one remained. A global order commonly but misleadingly referred to as bipolar gave way to a new era even more misleadingly referred to as unipolar. The onset of this unipolar order induced in Washington a mood of ...

A quiet Friday before the long Veterans Day weekend was apparently as good a time as any for the Trump administration to unveil its latest assault on immigrants: rules changes designed to deter those legally here from acquiring their rightly earned citizenship. The proposed new rules direct United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services, or USCIS - the arm of our immigration system that is ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alert

Breaking News