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The ‘Immunity’ of Diplomatic Passports

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Passports or rather diplomatic passports is a term which attracted much attention in the media in the last few weeks when former Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, Shashi Weerawansa was taken into custody for improperly obtaining a diplomatic passport and presenting forged documents. Later a travel ban was imposed by the Colombo Chief Magistrate Gihan Pilapitiya preventing her from leaving the country.

It was also revealed that the passport was issued on a written request by the minister to the former Controller General of Immigration and Emigration, Chulananda Perera. However doubts have arisen whether the diplomatic passport obtained by submitting false documents has been used in an illegal manner exploiting the privileges.

Passport is a document which is also called “travel document” which is issued by the government of a particular country. It confirms the identity and nationality of a person when travelling abroad. In a standard passport the name of the passport holder, place and date of birth, a photograph, the signature and other information to prove his identity should be included.

Though a passport certifies someone’s identity and nationality, it does not provide any rights. However diplomatic or official passports do grant rights and immunity from arrest or prosecution since it is subjected to international treaties.

Although some countries like the UK allow people to hold more than one passport, under the Immigration Act which is in use in the country, a person can have only one passport under his name making it illegal to have two or more passports.

According to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, a diplomatic passport is issued to VVIPs, Members of Parliament and Persons Posted to prescribed positions at Sri Lankan Overseas Missions.

Documents required to obtain a diplomatic passport are, a recent passport of the applicant, Original Birth Certificate, Original National Identity Card of the applicant and a photocopy, Marriage certificate where necessary (To confirm the name after marriage).

If a member of the Parliament is to get a diplomatic passport, a request letter from the Parliament is needed. A request letter from the Ministry of External Affairs is needed if the diplomatic passport is for a foreign post and for other purposes a request letter from the relevant Ministry is required.

Police Media Spokesperson SSP Ajith Rohana said a diplomatic passport holder has immunity and therefore they will not be subjected to any type of clearance when leaving or arriving the country. 

“According to the Vienna Convention such passport holders will not be subjected to any type of checking whatsoever,” he said.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 is an international treaty which provides a framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It lays down the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enable diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country. This forms the legal basis for diplomatic immunity. Its articles are considered a cornerstone of modern international relations. As of April 2014, it has been ratified by 190 states.

According to the convention,
Article 27 -The host country must permit and protect free communication between the diplomats of the mission and their home country. A diplomatic bag must never be opened even on suspicion of abuse. A diplomatic courier must never be arrested or detained.

Article 29 - Diplomats must not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. They are immune from civil or criminal prosecution, though the sending country may waive this right under Article 32. Under Article 34, they are exempt from most taxes, and under Article 36 they are exempt from most customs duties.

Due to several loopholes existing in the current system, the relevant authorities be it in charge of passport issuing or any other related function, may allow persons to exploit their privileges to do illegal things.

Commissioner General of the Department of Registration of Persons, R.M.S. Sarath Kumara talking to The Nation said that from February 2014 the department has introduced an automated system to provide the citizens with a more efficient service.

“Before 2014 we had the manual system in which we had to face a lot of problems. But with this new system we hope to minimize the defects and to provide a quality service for the citizens ‘said the Commissioner General.

Controller General of Immigration and Emigration, M.N Ranasinghe expressing his view said that the system at their department identifies a person from the National Identity Card (NIC) number and that is the key component. Therefore if two NIC numbers are given by the same person then the system won’t be able to detect it.

“The system our department has is a computerized one and when an application is received it will be scanned and will be added to the data base,” he said. The Controller General also mentioned that they are in the process of introducing the biometric authentication system to verify the user’s identity.

Several allegations were made by politicians that diplomatic/official passports holders who have obtained it through political influence have exploited their immunity and have smuggled drugs, gold and also foreign currency to the country through the Bandaranaike International Airport.

 When queried whether diplomatic passports can be used to smuggle goods to the country, Police Media Spokesperson SSP Ajith Rohana said that he cannot comment on that but diplomatic passport holders do enjoy immunity and emigration clearance is not needed.
“Such persons are exempted from emigration clearance,” said Rohana.

Minister of Public Order, Disaster Management & Christian Affairs, John Amaratunga has stated to the media that he will ensure that diplomatic passports which have been obtained by not fulfilling the required criteria will be cancelled and appropriate action will be taken against them.  According to the minister an investigation will be conducted to look in to the manner in which such passports have been issued especially under the previous government.

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