India and Saudi Arabia are dealing with a diplomatic dilemma. A woman who had been hired as a domestic helper for a Saudi family living in India ran away within her first week of work, reporting to an anti-trafficking organization that she had not been treated well and suspected that the other domestic helpers in the home remained in a bad situation.
Following the tip, the Gurgaon police raided the upscale residence in New Delhi last week and found two Nepalese women who had been hired as maids. They said they’d been held hostage, starved, and raped for four months by the men and their guests. They’d been permitted to bathe, but generally only before being sexually abused. A leaked medical examination document revealed that the two women had indeed been raped.
“There were days when seven to eight men — all from Saudi Arabia — would assault us. If we resisted, [they’d] threaten to kill us and dispose of our bodies in the sewer.”
Victim,Quoted in Indian Express
Under usual circumstances, a criminal investigation would ensue. Rape, confinement, trafficking…these are, after all, serious allegations. But there is a good chance this case will never be investigated, let alone receive a day in court. Why? Because the man who hired the women and held them in his home isn’t just a regular guy – he is a diplomat – and diplomatic immunity automatically spares him from all prosecution.
So let’s take a step back for a moment and examine what a diplomat does and where the concept of diplomatic immunity came from.
A diplomat is an official representing a country abroad, the highest ranking diplomatic position being that of the ambassador. There’s an assortment of other diplomatic positions as well, and their role collectively is to represent the interests of their home country. For example, a Canadian diplomat living in Brazil could be involved in a variety of initiatives, like building relationships and alliances with the Brazilian government and its people, negotiating trade deals with Brazilian companies, reporting back to Canada if there are any political or social changes in Brazil, operating a Canadian embassy, and supporting Canadian citizens living in Brazil.
Though often diplomats operate in countries that are on good terms with their own, this is not always the case. There are sometimes risks associated with their work. For this reason, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) ensures that diplomats enjoy immunity from arrest, criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits in the countries where they are posted.
“If…diplomats did not have immunity, they would be at constant risk of detention and prosecution on trumped-up charges, especially in countries where [their country] is unpopular or where the government bows to popular pressure.”
John Bellinger, Council on Foreign Relations
Arguably, diplomatic immunity does more good than harm overall. However, some diplomats have used this free ticket to participate in behaviour that can be very harmful – ranging anywhere from drunk driving to murder – with little or no consequence.
So, back to the case at hand. By responding to the tip and raiding the Saudi diplomat’s home, the Gurgaon police were actually violating the rules of diplomatic immunity. The Saudi Arabian ambassador to India claimed that the allegations against the diplomat were false and unproven. But unless Saudi Arabia agrees the waive immunity (which is unlikely), an official criminal investigation cannot be initiated, meaning that the allegations will forever remain unproven.
The only recourse for the Indian government, then, is to declare the diplomat as a “persona non grata” (literal meaning: “an unwelcome person”), evoke his visa, and kick him out of the country. But that may very well be the only “punishment” this diplomat receives, leaving his victims with no option but to move on with their lives.
What perhaps is most shocking about this is that human trafficking in diplomatic households – usually for labour but sometimes also for sexual exploitation – is a fairly common problem around the world. In fact, it’s such a notable issue that the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report has a section devoted to analyzing each country’s efforts to prevent its peacekeepers and diplomatic personnel from engaging in human trafficking abroad.
Let’s take a look at Saudi Arabia, the country this diplomat was representing. The 2015 TIP report points out some troublesome trends:
- The foreign worker population is the most vulnerable to trafficking in Saudi Arabia, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences. Many come from Nepal.
- Saudi Arabia requires that foreign workers obtain an exit visa from their employers to legally leave the country. This means that some are forced to work for months or years beyond their contract term because their employers will not grant them an exit permit.
- In a sign of progress, in November 2014, the government announced workers who fled their employers would not be jailed or forced to return to their employers to obtain an exit visa, provided the workers cooperated with their respective embassies within a 72-hour period and had no criminal charges or outstanding fines against them.
- The government provided anti-trafficking training or guidance for its diplomatic personnel (but clearly there is much room for more training, better accountability, and enforcement).
With exploitation rampant in the domestic service industry in Saudi Arabia, it’s not so surprising that a diplomat would bring it along with him to his post abroad.
A handbook to prevent the exploitation of domestic helpers outlines some of the vulnerabilities and realities of victims:
Why Domestic Workers are vulnerable to enslavement
- Often have a precarious administrative/immigration status
- Are tied to their employer due to labour migration policies
- Are in a situation where there is an imbalance of power, often without access to complaint mechanisms
- Depend on their employer for food and housing
- Are isolated and hidden inside homes (and if it’s a diplomat’s home, diplomatic immunity keeps police from entering the premises)
What Domestic Workers Who are Trafficked Experience
- Subjugation, intimidation and an obligation to provide work for a private individual
- Excessively low or no salary
- Few or no days off
- Psychological, physical violence, and/or sexual violence
- Limited or restricted freedom of movement
- Denial of a minimum level of privacy and health care
- Required to be available to work day and night, often in living conditions that are unacceptable and subject to abuse, humiliation, discriminatory behaviour and punishment
And this happens everywhere. Last year, a labour trafficking victim was discovered in Canada, in the home of a diplomat from the Philippines.
So what is being done about this? Several countries are beginning to train their diplomatic staff on human trafficking, and the Canadian government has a webpage specifically outlining the rights of domestic workers – along with numbers that both victims as well as the public can call if they suspect or experience something. Here’s an excerpt:
You might be a victim of human trafficking if you answer “yes” to one of these questions:
- Are you restricted from leaving the work site or your accommodation on your own?
- Has someone taken away your passport or work permit from you?
- Has your employer – or someone representing them – physically, sexually or psychologically abused you, or allowed it to happen to you?
- Has your employer or someone representing your employer threatened you or your family member?
- Do you fear something bad will happen to you or to a family member if you leave your job?
The Government of Canada condemns all acts of labour exploitation, including human trafficking. If you think that you are a victim of human trafficking or you suspect or know of human trafficking activity, please contact your local police at 911, or make an anonymous call to your local Crime Stoppers Program at 1-800-222-8477. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) helps protect victims of human trafficking by securing their immigration status with a special temporary resident permit (TRP).
Accredited Domestic Workers in Diplomatic Households – About your Rights and Protections Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada
Relations between Saudi Arabia and India will likely be cool for a while. The Saudi diplomat (who has still not been named) may be kicked out of India, but it’s unlikely he will ever face prosecution. After all, Saudi Arabia is one of India’s top sources of energy, and business must go on.
My Recommendations for Reducing Human Trafficking Within Diplomat Households:
Better screening of diplomats before they are hired. While languages, education, and general knowledge about international relations are important, there should also be a strong focus on the applicant’s character. While this is more difficult to measure, thorough character references should be the norm across the board. If the applicant currently has domestic workers in their home, interviewing them on how they are treated by the applicant may give some indicators as well.
Commitment from home countries to prosecute their own. If a diplomat is accused of a serious crime, there should be a willingness for the home country to investigate and prosecute them at home.
Better monitoring of diplomats once they’re abroad. Just because the host country cannot enter a diplomat’s home doesn’t mean the diplomat’s home country should not able to. If there is a serious allegation, there should be some way for the home country to run their own investigation and have full access to the diplomat’s home and office. It may also be beneficial to do random checks or reviews once a year, to ensure everyone’s well-being – that of the the diplomat as well as their staff.
Direct payment. It should be mandatory for all diplomats to pay their employees by cheque or via electronic funds transfer into a bank account set-up exclusively in the employee’s personal name, instead of cash payments.
Valid contracts. Domestic workers should be given a contract that includes details about payment (and any deductions), a description of job duties, and conditions of employment (including the maximum hours they would work per week and details about overtime hours).
Some of these steps could help ensure that diplomats don’t abuse their diplomatic immunity, and that people who are exploited are able to pursue justice.