Diplomatic immunity is a necessary tool

Our justice system is built on the admirable convention of there being one law for all. One glaring exception to this rule involves diplomatic immunity.

The current crisis involving a lower-level Malaysian diplomatic staff member accused of burglary and assault with intent to commit rape - who initially evaded the New Zealand justice system by being whisked home in secrecy - has sparked calls for the whole idea to be scrapped. That won't happen.

Outrageous and appalling this case might be - and, globally, it is far from an isolated incident - diplomatic immunity is a necessary device that most countries have bound themselves too, particularly since a set of international conventions were drawn up in Vienna in the 1960s.

The main reason for that is the notion that we send diplomats to many parts of the world, some of them with markedly different political or justice systems than ours. No matter how carefully they are screened prior to their postings, or scrupulous their behaviour while overseas, the fear is that without reciprocal immunity arrangements our diplomatic staff could be targeted and arrested on trumped up charges for political reasons.

It might therefore be difficult to get staff to serve in some countries without the sort of protection that diplomatic immunity affords. And the system also does help to facilitate information and communication flow between various sovereign states.

So, while there are some justifications for the convention, there are no excuses for flagrant abuses of it. It should not offer the opportunity for people to commit deliberate criminal acts on foreign soil and then be flown home to safety. There ought to be firmly established exemptions for particular types of crime; rape, firearms offences, serious assault and murder among them.

Tension around the current case has been heightened by conflicting accounts from the two governments involved. New Zealand claims Malaysia initially asked that the police case file be sealed, and rejected the notion that it waive immunity so the 38-year-old could be tried here.

Malaysia says it was New Zealand that proposed allowing the man to return home - and New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully subsequently admitted that some aspects of the communications on the "complex" case were "ambiguous".

Whatever the truth of it, the Malaysians are now doing the right thing and will send the accused back to New Zealand under military escort to stand trial here. The competence of the New Zealand ministry - and McCully's handling of the incident - are less clear cut. Obviously, there are issues of accountability yet to be fully played out.

For now, the main thing is a serious matter will be settled where it ought to be, where the alleged crimes occurred. Even if Malaysia could have been relied on to prosecute the case thoroughly, the victims of crime have the right to see justice being done.

The Nelson Mail