Can a Diplomat Waive Immunity?
By Jay Roman
A diplomat at the United Nations wants to rent my town house. I am worried about renting to him because of his diplomatic immunity to our laws. If the diplomat decided not to pay the rent, it would be next to impossible to have him evicted. I am interested in whether some type of waiver of immunity could be included in the lease to protect me.
“The questioner’s concern about renting to a person with diplomatic immunity is well-founded,” said Arthur I. Weinstein, a Manhattan lawyer who is a vice president of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums.
Mr. Weinstein said that so-called waivers of diplomatic immunity are quite complex. There are unresolved legal questions about whether an individual diplomat — or even his or her diplomatic mission — has the right to waive immunity, which is basically a privilege accorded to the country that the diplomat represents and not to the individual diplomat.
Depending on how it were written and interpreted, a waiver, even if it were valid, might apply only to judgments and not to attempts to evict a tenant.
Even if a lease with a waiver of immunity were made with the diplomatic mission itself, Mr. Weinstein said, collecting a judgment against the mission might be difficult. “Despite the higher rent possibly obtainable because of the risk of dealing with a person with immunity,” he said, “I advise my clients to avoid contracts with individuals possessing diplomatic immunity.
By LESLIE BENNETTS
Published: June 6, 1982
AFTER a long search for a place to live in New York, Olara Otunnu found a suitable cooperative apartment to s ublet and made all the arrangements without a hitch. But the day he w as to sign the lease, the president of the co-op board suddenly a nnounced that he could not have the apartment after all.
”There’s been a mistake,” he told Mr. Otunnu, who is Uganda’s representative to the United Nations. ”We don’t accept diplomats.” Mr. Otunnu kept looking, and found another apartment. ”Everything looked O.K.,” he said, ”but when I came on the appointed day with my check, I was told it was no longer available. I had a friend call up and cross-check, and he found the apartment was still available. So I went back with him, and they were embarrassed – they said the apartment was indeed available, but they couldn’t give it to me because I was a diplomat.”
He found a third apartment, but he was again rejected and again for the same reason. Mr. Otunnu, who eventually found an apartment in a new building, remembers his experience with anger. But, he said, it is a ”common story” for diplomats.”
Brokers insist that the problem is negligible, but city officials and those associated with the United Nations maintain that housing discrimination against diplomats is widespread and growing.
”It’s a problem that has become very serious and very pervasive,” said Gillian Martin Sorensen, head of the New York City Commission for the United Nations, the official liaison between the diplomatic and business communities in New York. ”It’s gotten much worse in the four years I’ve been in this spot.
”Six or eight years ago, brokers were even offering enticements to get diplomats. Now the vacancy rate in Manhattan means it’s very hard for anybody looking for an apartment, but it’s five times more difficult for any diplomat.”
Because most diplomats do not report such incidents to the commission, it is virtually impossible to determine how many have encountered housing barriers. And since the commission does not break its records down into specific categories like possible housing discrimination, officials cannot cite statistics to bolster their sense of the situation.
But the potential dimensions of the problem are considerable: The commission says there are about 32,000 diplomats and their family members living in the New York City area, providing about $700 million a year in revenues. With an annual turnover rate of about a third, Mrs. Sorensen said, at least 2,500 diplomatic families must seek housing each year.
One major reason she cited for the apparent aversion to diplomats as tenants is concern over diplomatic immunity – landlords’ fear that they will have no legal recourse if a diplomat defaults on rent or damages the property. DIPLOMATS posted to United Nations missions, and their families, do h ave complete diplomatic immunity, as do some Secretariat officials -i ncluding the Secretary General and all assistant secretaries general- and their families. Other Secretariat employees and consular o fficials have immunity only in connection with their official dutiesb ut not in regard to personal affairs, such as housing.
Real-estate agents, however, often fail to distinguish between diplomats with full immunity and United Nations employees without such protection.
”This comes up very frequently,” said Catherine Kottner, who is in charge of United Nations staff activities and housing. ”The real-estate community confuses diplomats -members of delegations with privileges and immunity – with staff members of the Secretariat, who are international civil servants who do not have privileges and immunities.
”We do not have the status diplomats have. We are bound by Federal, state and city laws. Some of the major brokers now know this, but some still don’t know the difference.”
Andrew Odell, deputy commissioner of the City Commission for the United Nations, acknowledged that landlords had some cause for concern about diplomats defaulting on rent with legal impunity.
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