What does diplomatic immunity really mean?

Pallbearers carry the casket of Catherine MacLean, who was killed by a Russian diplomat in Ottawa, January 31, 2001.
Pallbearers carry the casket of Catherine MacLean, who was killed by a Russian diplomat in Ottawa, January 31, 2001.

Recently, an Ottawa landlord won a landlord and tenant board ruling that ordered a tenant to pay him $8,625 in unpaid rent and legal fees.

But Rolf Baumann was probably surprised to get a response from the tenant’s lawyer invoking diplomatic immunity and refusing to pay, calling her “an agent of a foreign state and as such enjoys immunity from civil matters throughout Canada," according to a letter from the tenant’s lawyer Murray Snider.

Does diplomatic immunity really protect in this case? The case will head to Ontario Superior Court for a ruling in February but how often do diplomats behave badly on Canadian soil?

Under Canada’s State Immunity Act, “a foreign state is immune from the jurisdiction of any court in Canada,” according to a March 2014 litigation bulletin published by McMillan LLP in 2014.

However, the act also states any “commercial activity” is not subject to immunity, so perhaps the landlord has a good case to make.

Canada is also a signatory to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which governs the rules for diplomats in foreign countries. The rules help “facilitate the development of friendly relations among nations, irrespective of their differing constitutional and social systems,” according to a post from the Office of Protocol under Global Affairs Canada.

Link: http://www.international.gc.ca/protocol-protocole/vienna_convention-convention_vienne.aspx?lang=eng

"The Convention requires diplomats to obey local laws; however, the only sanction permissible under the Convention, in the absence of a waiver of immunity, is expulsion. This prevents the potential abuse by local authorities of the power of a state's law enforcement system."

There is a special link to the office’s policy on impaired driving and it promises to impose “zero tolerance” for that type of misbehaviour. If a diplomat is suspected of drunk driving — according to the policy — he or she is not allowed to drive for one year and on the second case, or on those involving injury or death, the diplomat is ordered to be expelled.


Probably the most famous case in this country occurred in 2001, when Russian attaché Andrei Knyazev drove his car onto an Ottawa sidewalk, killing Catherine MacLean and injuring her friend Catherine Dor.

While he remained at the scene, Knyazev invoked diplomatic immunity, despite him appearing to be severely intoxicated.

Information later surfaced that Knyazev was on his way home from an ice-fishing expedition. He refused to take a breathalyzer test at the scene and Knyazev blamed the weather for the accident, not his alleged drinking.

Knyazev was eventually sent home to Russia — without facing any Canadian justice — although he did serve four years in a Russian penal colony for the crime.
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