diplomatic immunity

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Diplomatic immunity is a status granted to a diplomat that exempts them from the laws of a foreign jurisdiction. It must be noted that immunity is a privilege of the state that a diplomatic agent represents. As such, a person cannot allege breach of immunity if the sending state does not contest a violation. 

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), which most countries have ratified, offers diplomats acting as officials of state almost total protection from subjection to criminal, administrative, and civil laws belonging to the country in which the diplomatic mission is located. Diplomats assigned to missions located in foreign countries remain subject to the laws of their home countries. The diplomat's country of origin has prerogative over whether or not a host country may prosecute a diplomat under its (i.e. 'foreign') laws.

The Diplomatic Relations Act of 1978, 22 U.S.C. § 254a et seq. governs diplomatic immunity in the United States. Title 22 specifies the degree of protection awarded to diplomatic personnel; protection increases in parallel with the official's status within a diplomatic mission. Article 31 of the Vienna Convention provides for three exceptions to the diplomatic immunity which are as follows:

  1. A real action relating to private immovable/tangible property.
  2. An action relating to succession.
  3. An action relating to any professional or commercial activity exercised by the diplomatic agent in the receiving State outside his official functions.

For more information about specific immunities granted to foreign diplomats residing in the U.S., see the U.S. State Department's list of immunities and privileges.

[Last updated in September of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]