Despite a global crackdown on human traffickers and a pledge by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that stopping this type of “modern slavery” was a top priority, foreign diplomats in the United States remain immune from punishment when they abuse members of their household staffs.
The diplomats use claims of immunity to avoid criminal investigations and sidestep civil lawsuits in cases in which they have been accused of enslaving or even raping their workers.
“Americans care so much about animal rights, but people were treating me worse than an animal,” a victim of diplomatic abuse once told Mark P. Lagon, who headed the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Lagon, now a visiting professor in the foreign service program at Georgetown University, recently recalled another victim from India saying she “felt more vulnerable” in the U.S. than in the Persian Gulf area because diplomats here faced fewer consequences.
The immunity also has stifled revelations about the magnitude of the problem, forcing some self-proclaimed victims to wait for the diplomats to leave the U.S. and then turn to essentially unenforceable civil suits to tell their stories, including:
An Indian woman who said in a 2010 lawsuit that she was brought to New York by an Indian diplomat at the United Nations, forced to work 16-hour days without pay, sleep on the floor and threatened with beatings if she tried to flee. In March, a federal judge ordered the diplomat, who returned to India, to pay $1.4 million in back wages, punitive damages and emotional duress. The money has not been paid.
A former housekeeper for a Kuwaiti attache who accused the diplomat of raping her “on many occasions” and said she lived in “constant fear of being raped,” according to a July 2008 lawsuit. In June 2011, the woman asked that the lawsuit be dismissed after she reached an undisclosed settlement.
A housekeeper who said in a lawsuit that a Lebanese diplomat underpaid, verbally abused and mistreated her. The lawsuit was dismissed in April 2011 by a federal judge who said the diplomat had immunity. The judge said that although his ruling could prevent parties from “obtaining redress in our courts,” it also served to “protect American diplomats and their families from what we might consider as legal abuses overseas.” While the case was being appealed, the woman reached a confidential settlement.
No one knows how many diplomats have avoided punishment — the number could be dozens or even in the hundreds — but the State Department has yet to suspend a single country from a special visa program the allows diplomats to bring workers to the United States. That lack of oversight comes to light even though Congress has mandated that the State Department take action — including the loss of the right to sponsor additional workers — if there is credible evidence of abuse by foreign mission personnel and the mission tolerated the abuse.
“Diplomatic immunity must not become diplomatic impunity,” Mr. Lagon said.
Mr. Bush signed legislation in December 2008 to prevent the abuse, exploitation and trafficking of domestic workers employed by foreign diplomats in the U.S. The law ensures that the workers are aware of their rights and requires a diplomat to have a contract with a worker containing conditions of employment. The law requires the State Department to suspend the issuance of special visas for any country where there is credible evidence of worker abuse and that abuse has been tolerated by the mission. It gives the secretary of state the power to refuse to issue the special visas but does not suspend or limit the use of diplomatic immunity.
Enforce the law
Martina Vandenberg, who heads the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, said the State Department needs to enforce the law when workers at foreign missions are abused — particularly when there are “egregious cases and multiple offenses.” She said the department has not suspended any countries from bringing in domestic workers under the special visa program.
Ms. Vandenberg, a lawyer in the District who has filed several lawsuits against diplomats for abuse allegations, said she is aware of 24 cases in which workers filed lawsuits against their diplomat employers, describing the number as “just the tip of the iceberg.” She said that while immunity protects diplomats from criminal charges and litigation while they are in the U.S., it does not shield them from lawsuits for nonofficial acts once they leave this country.
The Government Accountability Office said in a 2008 report, the most recent available concerning human trafficking abuses by foreign diplomats in this country, that 3,500 special visas were being issued on average each year.