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Immunity, Diplomacy, And The Testimony of Paul Wolfowitz

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As hearings are being readied by the incoming House and Senate, an intriguing matter surrounds the potential testimony of former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. Now heading the World Bank, Mr. Wolfowitz is regarded as a key architect of the Iraq war, the conversion of pre-war intelligence into policy and centrally involved in post-war planning. But Mr. Wolfowitz also has diplomatic immunity in view of being a "diplomatic agent or envoy" as President of the Bank, a component of the United Nations system. All international agencies are granted privileges and immunities under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations of 1946

Another relevant Convention is the Vienna Convention on the Representation of States in their Relations with International Agencies of a Universal Character of 1975.

These Conventions generally grant blanket immunity, both for current and all prior acts, to staff of international agencies. This is why the Congress was unable to secure any testimony from senior UN officials during the Oil-for-Food investigations. Some in the Congress may therefore doubt whether evidence from Mr. Wolfowitz can be sought.

But for Mr. Wolfowitz, being a US citizen heading an international agency headquartered in the US, the situation is different. The Conventions make clear that any US national can be subpoenaed for actions undertaken prior to joining an international agency. Hence, Committees of the House and Senate can easily seek Mr. Wolfowitz' appearance on the Iraq war or other Department of Defense matters by means of a simple invitation, or subpoena. No one dares to ignore a Congressional subpoena.

With a multi-billion dollar funding request pending in the Congress for the World Bank's soft-loan and grants arm, the International Development Association (IDA), the possibility also exists for Mr. Wolfowitz to take the lead in ensuring transparency and accountability in the World Bank's relations with its top shareholder's legislature, for which larger principle he was willing to commit young American lives in other nations. Here, the Conventions do give Mr. Wolfowitz immunity, and previous World Bank presidents have used that privilege to avoid testifying before the Congress or parliaments of major donors despite over $500 billion having been transferred to the Bank by the Congress and other legislatures during the Bank's 62 years in existence. But especially because Mr. Wolfowitz' entire career has apparently been in the cause of spreading democracy and freedom, even playing a crucial role in the Philippines' transition from dictatorship over 20 years ago when he was Assistant Secretary of State, there appears to be little reason why the refusal to testify should continue. All that he will need to do is to type out on a sheet of paper that he "waives immunity and will testify before Congressional committees on the IDA request."

There are only a few countries that give the vast majority of IDA funds. The parliaments of those countries (and therefore the public, courtesy of C-SPAN) deserve the opportunity to hear testimony of key figures in international agencies that are increasingly being seen as bulwarks against the State failure and chaos that fuel terrorism. Paul Wolfowitz can set the precedent.