Belgian envoy’s wife slaps shopkeeper in Seoul, then claims diplomatic immunity. What does the law say?

  • The use of diplomatic immunity has come under scrutiny in other countries, especially after the wife of an American envoy was able to escape the UK following her alleged involvement in a road accident that killed a British teenager.
The screengrab of security footage that showed Xiang Xueqiu pushing one of the staff members before slapping her across the face.
The screengrab of security footage that showed Xiang Xueqiu pushing one of the staff members before slapping her across the face.
Published on May 18, 2021 06:31 PM IST
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By | Edited by Kunal Gaurav, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The wife of Belgium’s ambassador to South Korea, who allegedly hit two staff members at a boutique store in Seoul last month, has now invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid criminal charges, police said Tuesday. According to local media reports, a store employee had mistaken Xiang Xueqiu, wife of Ambassador Peter Lescouhier, for a shoplifter and tried to look inside the jacket she was wearing.

The security camera footage shared widely online showed Xiang Xueqiu, wife of Ambassador Peter Lescouhier, pushing one of the staff members before slapping her across the face. Lescouhier had previously apologised in an Instagram video, saying her wife “might have had her reasons to be angry at the way she was treated in that shop, but committing physical violence is totally unacceptable."

Apologising for her wife’s action, the Belgian envoy said that “[s]he sincerely regrets it and she wants to offer her apologies in person to the shopkeeper when she gets the opportunity to do so." Xiang was hospitalised following the incident but, the ambassador said, was discharged as her “medical condition [was] stabilising”.

“Out of respect for the privacy of all persons involved and in the interest of the investigation, I myself and the staff of my embassy will abstain from any further comments on this case,” he added.

The incident sparked outrage in South Korea as thousands of people signed petitions on the presidential website calling to expel the ambassador’s wife from the country. While South Korea’s foreign ministry assured that it has been “seriously handling” unlawful behaviour by foreign diplomats, Seoul Metropolitan Police said in a statement that Xiang had exercised her diplomatic immunity and, therefore, will formally drop the case soon.

What does the law say?

According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961, of which South Korea is a signatory, family members of diplomats living in foreign countries enjoy immunity from arrest in most of the cases. However, the immunity can be voluntarily waived by the sending state and it must always be “express”.

“Waiver of immunity from jurisdiction in respect of civil or administrative proceedings shall not be held to imply the waiver of immunity in respect of the execution of the judgement, for which a separate waiver shall be necessary,” reads Article 36(4) of the Vienna Convention.

The use of diplomatic immunity has come under scrutiny in other countries, especially after Anne Sacoolas, wife of an American ambassador, fled the United Kingdom using diplomatic immunity following her alleged involvement in a fatal road accident that killed a British teenager, Harry Dunn. The parents of Harry Dunn launched a court case, which they eventually lost in November 2020, to argue that Britain’s Foreign Office wrongly decided Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity.

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