Outrageous Stories of Abuse as Immunity Shields Diplomats in the US From Trafficking Women
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“The American government is reluctant to publicly embarrass countries that have severe cases and that reluctance is very troubling,” says Vandenberg, of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center.
When Americans with diplomatic immunity have committed crimes abroad, the U.S. has brought them home and in many cases, prosecuted them, Vandenberg says.
The same is not true of many other countries. For instance, after a U.S. federal judge ordered Tanzania’s Mzengi to pay $1 million in a civil case, he fled to Tanzania where he serves as an advisor to the president.
“Congress passed a law that if diplomats from particular missions have outstanding parking tickets in New York or Washington, D.C., their aid is suspended,” Vandenberg says. “We have given the impression that we care more about parking tickets than we do about human trafficking.”
Yet there is a way to increase the accountability of diplomats. U.S. law enforcement officials can ask the State Department to request a waiver of diplomatic immunity from the sending country. Once that request is made, the State Department is required by law to pursue a waiver of diplomatic immunity.
“That’s a really important point,” Vandenberg says. “Otherwise, for political reasons, and reasons of foreign policy, the government might be picking and choosing which cases to take forward and which to not touch.”
The Department of Justice could not provide statistics on the number of allegations of labor trafficking made against diplomats by their personal staff.
“When we become aware of these types of allegations, we conduct a thorough investigation and where appropriate, we seek all necessary waivers,” said Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “We coordinate in these cases with Department of State and follow all relevant law.”
The Department of Justice, however, has requested a waiver of immunity in a trafficking case involving diplomats on just one occasion.
You see these women every day
A woman identified in court records as C.V. chortles when I visit. She is still getting ready, wearing a tank top and her long hair in soft curls. She has made her apartment pretty with houseplants and framed photo collages of her children on the walls.
C.V. has a little mouth that turns down at first when she laughs, before she decides whether it’s going to be full scale. She has neatly shaped eyebrows and smooth brown skin.
For eight months following December 2008, C.V. says, the Mauritius ambassador to the U.N., Somduth Soborun, kept her housebound in his New Jersey home, telling her an alarm would sound and police would arrest her if she left.
She says she was made to iron shirts she had already pressed so they were warm when the ambassador put them on. If he received a phone call that delayed his departure for work, she had to iron the shirt a third time.
She says she was the sole housekeeper in a large house with five bedrooms and six bathrooms. She made breakfast, packed lunches and bathed the family’s dog.
She says she ate leftovers and slept in a small room next to the kitchen.
C.V. says the ambassador and his wife would inspect the tiles on the floor after she mopped and run their fingers along cleaned surfaces, checking for dust.
“Even if you did it properly, they don’t like your job. They are always looking for a mistake,” she says.
Once, when she was sick, C.V. says the ambassador demanded that she clean the floors. She recalls saying, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m so sick.” He did not accept her explanation. At 8 on a Saturday morning, after having been to the hospital, C.V. washed the floors. She says she heard the ambassador and his wife laughing.