Where diplomatic immunity becomes impunity

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In a few days, a group of non-government organizations will be meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about a serious human trafficking matter: the veritable enslavement of some domestic servants by diplomats.  On our soil.The meeting was requested in a letter organized by the American Civil Liberties Union co-signed by an array of NGOs and lawyers.  I was proud to sign myself.

Until January I was heavily involved in this issue as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large assigned by Congress to combat human trafficking.

I argued vociferously that the ranking the U.S. assigns in its Annual Report on other countries must account for the treatment of domestic help by their diplomats.  That is the very complicity of government officials the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) directs the State Department Report to address.

Diplomats in embassies in Washington or at the United Nations in New York bring domestic help from third countries into the U.S. under A-3 and G-5 visas.  Many diplomats treat their maids and nannies decently.   But in a number of cases domestic servants have been subject to classic characteristics of human trafficking: passports seized, pay withheld, work literally day and night, confinement to the home and physical violence.

Raziah Begum came to the United States looking forward to the promise of a good job with the Bangladesh mission to the United Nations.   Instead, she worked for the Bangladeshi diplomat for 16-19 hours a day and was compensated with the $29 a month sent to her son in Bangladesh.  She was forced to sleep on a hardwood floor with no blanket, denied the freedom to leave the apartment, speak to or be seen by house guests, all the while having her passport illegally confiscated by the diplomats.  “For two and a half years, [they] kept me as a prisoner in their house and made me a slave to their demands.  They tried to take from me my dignity and humanity, and they got away with it because of diplomatic immunity.”

Both the State Department Office I headed and a report by the Government Accountability Office counted approximately the same number of cases in recent years.

When the Justice Department gets enough evidence (difficult given these acts  are hidden in homes behind the bubble of diplomatic missions) it will ask through the State Department for the country to lift the diplomatic immunity of the accused diplomat in order to prosecute.  The diplomat is always withdrawn rather than the request being honored.

Diplomatic immunity becomes impunity.  Yet there’s nothing in treaty law that clearly says treatment of hired help is part of one’s shielded diplomatic duties.

When I was Director of the State Department Trafficking in Persons Office, the ACLU hosted a meeting for me in New York with women victimized by the family of a diplomat of a U.S. Persian Gulf ally.   Even after visiting over 28 countries in two years, a woman at this particular meeting said one of the chilling remarks I’ve ever heard from a victim of trafficking.  This woman was from Goa in India.  She said that when she worked for the family back home in the Gulf country, she wasn’t treated as badly.  But when she came to the U.S. to work for that family, they felt free to treat cruelly.  This was abuse in our country.

Women and migrants are known to be poorly treated in Gulf states.  A number are victims of human trafficking.  I’ve met some – like one in the very same Gulf country whose photos revealed bite marks all over her body from a female employer.

Some diplomatic families feel they have license to abuse someone – like the Goan woman – in the United States, where we are proud of freedoms not enjoyed in the Gulf.

That’s why the latest TVPA reauthorization, named after British abolitionist William Wilberforce, directed the State Department to take action — from tracking which third country nationals are working for which embassies, to backing serious investigations of diplomats.

The reflexive desire not to rock the boat in our relations with other countries given misplaced concerns about constant whining from their ambassadors or fear of backlash against U.S. diplomats must end.

Yet diplomats are not the only ones subjecting domestic servants to human trafficking on our soil.   More on that in a future blog.

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