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.
Janie Chuang, an associate professor of law at American University's Washington College of Law, described as "really frustrating" the State Department's failure to suspend countries from obtaining special visas when there is evidence that domestic workers have been abused. She also said the department should be "calling out governments when there are judgments against their diplomats," citing as an example the case of a diplomat from Tanzania who forced a domestic employee to work more than 16 hours a day — including shoveling snow barefoot — and then fled the country after a federal judge ordered him to pay the worker $1 million. The judgment was never paid.
Ms. Chuang said the State Department has not made any "noise" in cases involving suspected abuse by diplomats because "it does not want to disrupt foreign relations."
The Obama administration has talked tough about the human trafficking. At the Clinton Global Initiative in September, Mr. Obama promised to provide the necessary tools, training, expanded resources, victim services and long-term planning to combat human trafficking. He noted that child prostitution, forced labor, sex trafficking, domestic servitude and other forms of "modern-day slavery" was a $32 billion criminal industry that affected 27 million people worldwide.
Earlier this year, Mrs. Clinton told a Cabinet-level meeting of the President's Task Force to Combat and Monitor Trafficking of Persons that it was unfair that diplomats who victimized their own domestic workers "were, because of diplomatic immunity, virtually untouchable." She said the department was making sure that diplomats "understand their obligations and responsibilities, and we're taking action when we have evidence they are not."
It is unclear what action she was talking about. Not a single foreign mission in the United States has been suspended for abusing its workers. This lack of action comes at a time when human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world — second only to drug trafficking.
Luis CdeBaca, who now heads the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the Obama administration has pressed for greater protection for the domestic workers of diplomats, but the State Department declined to say why it has not suspended any countries from the special visa program. Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the department has been "working to ensure that the diplomatic community fully respects U.S. law on this and every other issue," but he declined to elaborate.
The Justice Department declined to explain how it handles the problem of diplomats who claim immunity from criminal prosecution. Spokeswoman Dena W. Iverson said the department conducts investigations when it becomes aware of "these types of allegations" and seeks diplomatic waivers where appropriate. But she did not respond directly to questions on how often waivers are sought and how many cases the department has investigated involving diplomats and the abuse of workers.
Afraid to come forward
In its 2008 report, the GAO said 42 foreign workers in the U.S. reported being abused by their diplomat bosses between 2000 and 2008, although the agency said the actual number was "likely higher" because many workers were afraid to come forward. The GAO report said that while the State Department had several offices that received allegations of abuse by foreign diplomats, no single office maintained information on all allegations. Most of the special visas went to people to work for foreign diplomats in the District, Maryland, New York and Virginia.
"The people who come to the United States on A-3 and G-5 visas are among the most vulnerable who enter our borders legally. They are often poor, uneducated, and unfamiliar with their rights under U.S. law," the report said. "If they find themselves in an abusive situation, their ability to hold their employers accountable can be limited, particularly if their employers hold full diplomatic immunity and inviolability."
In the report, the GAO said the State Department had "expressed concerns" that some foreign diplomats may be abusing their household workers, but it did not collect or maintain information on cases of alleged abuse. In response to written questions last week, the State Department refused to give details on what steps, if any, it had taken since to curb the problem of foreign diplomats exploiting their workers and then hiding behind diplomatic immunity.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, said the State Department "ought to act aggressively" to stop the abuse of domestic workers at foreign missions in this country, saying the failure to do so is "unacceptable." Earlier this year, Mr. Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to fight human trafficking more aggressively and "find solutions" to ensure that people "are not victimized and that perpetrators are brought to justice." He inserted language in the department's fiscal 2012 spending bill requiring U.S. attorneys nationwide to establish human trafficking task forces to investigate people and groups that facilitate trafficking.
"President Obama spoke recently before the United Nations where he called human trafficking modern slavery," Mr. Wolf said. "He made a big deal of confronting and controlling it. I would like to see some action rather than listen to a sermon."
Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said some foreign diplomats in the U.S. have engaged in "some of the worst possible abuse of human beings, mostly women" and do so with "impunity." She said such activity "cannot be tolerated," adding that those accused of abuse should be charged and stand trial.
Ms. Ramos, a public interest lawyer who helped establish the coalition, said the U.S. government needs to ensure that the special A-3 and G-5 visas awarded for diplomats to bring workers to this country include the admonition that diplomatic immunity will become null and void if human trafficking laws are violated. She said State and Justice, along with the White House, need to "develop the political courage and will to enact laws" to protect the workers.
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