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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 10
March 10, 2007

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Human Rights Monitor
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Human Rights Monitor

Diplomatic Immunity
International law hurts women's rights!

Chaumtoli Huq

Lured by labour recruiters with promises of better employment and increased educational opportunities for her children, Shamela Begum left her native country Bangladesh to work as a domestic worker in Bahrain. Within a few days of her arrival in Bahrain, Shamela found herself travelling to New York City to work for her employer's relative -- a Bahraini diplomat to the United Nations. In New York, her new employers confiscated her passport and travel documents. She was isolated from the public and prevented from leaving the apartment where she worked except on three occasions when she accompanied the wife of the diplomat. She was forced to work for $100 a month. She suffered humiliating treatment such as sitting on the floor rather than the sofa and ate left over food.

She endured physical and verbal abuse from the wife of the diplomat who instilled fear in her about America. After nine months, no longer able to endure the abuse, she escaped with the help of an intricate yet informal network of supporters comprising a fruit vendor, ethnic media, community-based organisation and lawyer. With the moral and political support of a community organisation Shamela brought a lawsuit against the diplomat and his wife challenging the abusive working conditions. She found herself challenging not only the Government of Bahrain and its diplomatic envoy but the United States government who intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the diplomat and urged the federal court to dismiss Shamela's lawsuit on grounds that the diplomat could not be sued for any action in domestic courts.

The United States Department estimates that thousands of migrant domestic workers are brought from developing countries to work in the households of diplomats in United States and in host countries all over the world. Many Bangladeshi women who work as domestic workers find themselves in similar situations to that of Shamela. Tales of slave-like conditions experienced by migrant domestic workers regularly occur on the geographic territory of the United States and other host countries.

Despite international and national laws prohibiting slavery or slave-like conditions, domestic workers of diplomats find themselves facing a legal obstacle in the form of diplomatic immunity. Diplomatic immunity, once a courtesy afforded to nations to facilitate international relations, has since been codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Diplomatic immunity is considered to be the oldest branch of international law and is generally defined as the freedom from local jurisdiction accorded to duly accredited diplomatic agents and members of their households. But contrary to some legal scholars who view diplomatic immunity as a static and fixed principle ignore modifications of the immunity from "the king can do no wrong" to its current incarnations in the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations where the diplomat while enjoying full immunity could be subject to legal process under specific conditions.

The worker could sue the diplomat in her home country if her employer shares the same nationality but she is often scared, alone and isolated and in the host country when she experiences the abuse going back to her home country is not feasible. Also, because the diplomat may hold a politically powerful position in her home country, it is impractical to conceive that she could launch such a legal battle against the diplomat. And in Shamela case, where her diplomat employers hailed from another country, it was impossible for her to fight any legal challenge in the diplomat's home country.

In 2007, it is a shame that migrant domestic workers must endure the abuse of their diplomat employers in the name of international relations. There has been much publicity on this issue, and I have sadly had to assist migrant domestic workers like Shamela only to see the court house door close because of the enormous privilege given to select group of employers under international law but whose conduct clearly violate established norms of human rights. As we celebrate International Women's Day, we should rejoice in the advancements made by women. We should also be ashamed also at the injustice that female migrant domestic workers bear daily in the name of preserving international relations.

The author is a lawyer and the Coordinator for Human Rights Defender Network.


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