Corruption has yet again publicly surfaced as a significant problem at the United Nations. The current bribery scandal implicates John Ashe, the U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda and the former President of the General Assembly, along with several others. Ashe stands accused of accepting $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese developers in exchange for promoting real estate projects. Among the others who have come under scrutiny is Francis Lorenzo, the Dominican Republic’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., who allegedly accepted and paid bribes as a part of a scheme to influence decisions related to the development of a multi-billion dollar U.N. conference center in Macau.
As both Sarah and Matthew have previously discussed, the U.N. has not done an admirable job of policing itself. But now the organization may be getting help from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. In October 2015, the FBI arrested Ashe and Lorenzo on charges of tax evasion and bribery, respectively. But the prosecution of officials of an international organization poses uncommon challenges. U.N. diplomats can claim certain immunity against suit in American courts, and both Ashe and Lorenzo plan to assert such immunity as a complete defense. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara feels confident that he will be able to defeat these immunity claims, and he has further implied that he will be able to do so in future cases.
Is Bharara’s confidence well-founded? Any assessment of how American prosecutors (or other national prosecutions) may fight corruption at the U.N. requires delving into the complex legal doctrines on diplomatic immunities. This post aims to offer a brief primer on the key legal concepts and doctrines, and how they might apply in the Ashe and Lorenzo cases. Continue reading