Immunity for State Officials and the UN Library

UN Library New York

The Dag Hammarskjöld library in New York

Media reported at the beginning of January 2016 that the most popular book of 2015 at the United Nations’ headquarters library was a book on immunity for heads of state and state officials for serious crimes.

The Dag Hammarskjöld library in New York announced on Twitter that ‘Immunity of Heads of State and State Officials for International Crimes” by Ms Ramona Pedretti was its most-browsed book that year, prompting speculation online about why UN staff and international delegates to the UN were borrowing such a title.

Numerous online articles and reactions on Twitter suggested that the book had been borrowed by UN diplomats so as to know how to avoid prosecution in The Hague for their acts.

Politics and policy website Vox wrote: “The UN is full of delegates representing awful dictatorships, and the 2015 book that it says got checked out the most from the UN library was about … how to be immune from war crimes prosecution. That does not seem like a good thing.”

According to online sources, however, the UN library later clarified that this title was its most popular “new” book, acquired in July 2015. It had only been borrowed twice and checked out for browsing four times.

Moreover, the author of the book, Dr Ramona Pedretti commented that the book is not so much written for heads of state to avoid prosecution. On the contrary, it concludes that former Heads of State and other State officials do not benefit from immunity when charged with international crimes before foreign national courts. And although acting Heads of State cannot be prosecuted in national courts abroad according to customary international law, the book recognises that the situation is different before international criminal tribunals, where immunity for Heads of State does not bar proceedings.

She concludes that the “book is thus in fact an unpleasant read to war criminals and an encouraging one to those who go after them”.

According to Dr Pedretti, the borrowings of this title at the second half of the year 2015 rather reflect the interest in the subject stimulated in that year in particular by the escape of Sudanese President, Omar Al-Bashir, from South Africa, and the work of the United Nations International Law Commission on compiling draft articles on immunity of State officials from foreign jurisdictions.

Perhaps the ease with which the online community interpreted this news is more telling than the actual news itself.

I Am Malala, the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, was the most popular book overall in the UN library.