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Chipping Away at Diplomatic Immunity as a Defense Against Trafficking Claims

Araceli Martinez-Olguin,
Women's Rights Project
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June 17, 2009

For years advocates have been trying to vindicate the rights of domestic workers who have been enslaved by foreign diplomats in the U.S. Virtually every time a domestic worker has brought charges of abuse and exploitation against her diplomat employer, the courts have ruled that the diplomat could not be held accountable for his actions because of diplomatic immunity. But not yesterday. Yesterday a court denied a former Philippine ambassador to the U.N. the ability to duck responsibility for violating his domestic worker’s human, civil, and labor rights simply by asserting that he was a diplomat at the time. Marichu Baoanan, who was held captive and forced to work as a domestic worker for the ambassador, and is represented by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, can proceed with her case against her former employer. Few women in her situation can say the same.

A rally for Marichu’s case was held on October 28, 2008, in New York.

Marichu’s mistreatment is no isolated incident. As documented by Human Rights Watch nearly a decade ago, and further quantified by the Government Accountability Office and the ACLU, domestic workers employed by diplomats are particularly susceptible to abuse and exploitation because of their employers’ status as diplomats. The ACLU represents Kumari Sabbithi, Joaquina Quadros, and Tina Fernandes in a similar case arising out of their enslavement by a Kuwait diplomat in the Washington, D.C. area.

Though groundbreaking, yesterday’s decision does not empower all abused, exploited, or even enslaved domestic workers to bring diplomat employers before a court to answer for rights violations. Yesterday, the court only concluded that former diplomats could be held accountable, declining to determine whether a diplomat still in that position should be shielded by diplomatic immunity from charges of human trafficking. In order to fully vindicate the human rights of domestic workers, no form of immunity should protect diplomats who abuse, exploit, and enslave their employees.

To learn more about the ACLU’s efforts to protect the rights of domestic workers, visit

NOTE: This blog post as been amended to include a link to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund website.

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