On 14 August 2017 various news sites reported that Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe had assaulted a young woman. A court hearing to obtain a statement from Mrs Mugabe was scheduled for the 15th but she failed to appear. On the evening of the 16th the Government of Zimbabwe directed a note verbale to the South African government invoking diplomatic immunity on her behalf and stating that Mrs Mugabe’s itinerary in South Africa included amongst private matters her attendance and participation at the scheduled SADC Heads of States/Governments Summit and other Bi-lateral Diplomatic Meetings.
The question which has gripped lawyers and laymen alike is whether or not Mrs Mugabe can successfully claim any kind of immunity under international law to shield herself from arrest and prosecution. Media reports asserted that Mrs Mugabe claimed “diplomatic” immunity”. However, as the spouse of a sitting Head of State, ordinarily resident in Zimbabwe, Mrs Mugabe cannot be considered a diplomatic agent and is not entitled to the protections afforded under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR). Customary international law also confers personal immunity on some state officials. This personal immunity is extensive in scope, and wide enough to cover both official and private acts by heads of state, heads of government and foreign ministers as the Arrest Warrant Case points out. As Mrs Mugabe does not fall within any of the categories above, she cannot claim personal immunity. In addition, customary international law accords, functional immunity in relation to acts performed in an official capacity. This immunity covers the official acts of all state officials and of those who act on behalf of the state. It is determined by reference to the nature of the acts in question rather than the particular office of the official who performed them. However, the alleged assault by Mrs Mugabe was not undertaken in the performance of any official duty and functional immunity is unavailable in relation to that act.
This post considers whether the Mrs Mugabe may have been entitled to immunity, while in South Africa, as the spouse of a head of state. The post first considers whether the spouse of a representative to SADC, an international organization, may be entitled to immunity. It then explores the immunity of family members of state officials on special missions and of heads of states. Read the rest of this entry…