In many crime dramas and action movies, a prime suspect often eludes capture by claiming "diplomatic immunity." The belief is that foreign diplomats, their staff, and immediate family members cannot be arrested for violating local laws, but in reality, this form of immunity is not quite as all-encompassing. Only certain recognized foreign diplomats can actually claim it, and the privilege is generally offered as a quid pro quo for American diplomats stationed overseas. Diplomatic immunity is not an impenetrable shield against the laws of the land, but more of a courtesy extended to diplomats who cannot afford to be held up by minor traffic violations or other misdemeanors.
The rules regarding diplomatic immunity are spelled out clearly in policy manuals published by the respective governments. Historically, some form of immunity has been extended to foreign dignitaries and their official entourages on peacekeeping missions or treaty negotiations. In 1961, an international convention on diplomatic relations was held in Vienna, which helped to unify and codify the practice.
Not every foreign official or staff member of a consulate is entitled to full diplomatic immunity. A recognized foreign diplomat and his or her immediate family enjoys the most protection, although even diplomats can receive traffic tickets. Administrators and technical personnel attached to a foreign diplomat are also protected very well under this practice, but service staff members have no legal protection except when it comes to their performance of official duties.
The situation changes at the consulate level, however. Unlike the diplomatic corps, officers and staff assigned to consulates have very few protections under these rules. Diplomats and consulate officers cannot be compelled to testify in court concerning official acts, but consular officers can be prosecuted or subpoenaed as witnesses.
While the concept of diplomatic immunity might appear ripe for widespread abuse, most diplomats understand and respect the laws of the countries they visit. If a diplomat, or one of his or her family members, ever did commit a serious crime, the host country could declare the offender persona non grata, meaning he or she is no longer welcome in the country. Diplomats may be immune from local law enforcement efforts, but they are still subject to the laws of their countries of origin. Anyone who abuses the privilege of diplomatic immunity can be recalled by their country's government and prosecuted under their system of justice. This may be just enough incentive for diplomats to make every effort to obey the laws of their host countries.