Navigating the Special Relationship:
A Discussion on US-UK Relations after the Death of Harry Dunn
Toby Leah | March 2021
The old US embassy in London, 2007
eing British, and having lived in the United States, I’ve always had the relationship between the two nations at the forefront of my mind. Regular conversations about my accent, or the royal family, or even at times “banter,” (if you can call it that), directed my way about the American Revolution. Nevertheless, US-UK relations have been central to the development of the America that exists today. The two nations have arguably had a greater impact on the entire world than any other nations in history.
Let’s be clear: the impact has not always been a positive one. The two countries have devastated parts of the world more than they would like to say. For all the talk of British and American exceptionalism, our countries have caused enormous destruction through colonialism and neo-colonialism and their enduring legacies. Considering the last decade, we should recognise the need to rebuild our relationship. Aside from the pandemic, the Capitol riot and continuing conspiracy theories alleging fraud in the 2020 election have further damaged democracy on the American side of the pond. In the UK, fallouts from Brexit and political wrangling with the European Union has left the UK more isolated. Both nations are coming out of an extremely difficult period, and before we preach to one another and the rest of the world about the need for democracy, justice, or fairness, we must practice those values to a much higher standard.
Harry Dunn and Anne Sacoolas
Whilst the media on both sides of the Atlantic have been engrossed in the family of Prince Harry, the family of another Harry continues to seek justice. In August 2019, 19-year-old Harry Dunn died after his motorbike crashed with a car driving on the wrong side of the road, near RAF Croughton (Currently a US Air Force communications station) in Northamptonshire, England. The car’s driver, Anne Sacoolas is a United States national who left for the United States soon after, where she currently remains. Sacoolas faces charges of death by dangerous driving in the United Kingdom, a section one offence in the Road Traffic Act 1988. If found guilty of such a charge in the UK, an individual may receive a maximum term of 14 years imprisonment. As the legal case remains unresolved, I am not here to try Ms. Sacoolas, but if you wish to find out more about road traffic offences in the UK follow this link.
Instead, my focus turns to the issue of Ms. Sacoolas’ potential extradition to the UK. Anne Sacoolas left the country in the days following Dunn’s death, and asserted diplomatic immunity as a dependent of a diplomat.
According to the BBC, the United States signed an agreement for its staff at RAF Croughton in 1995 which meant that they could not claim diplomatic immunity for actions beyond their duties, actions which include prosecutable offenses outside of employment activities. However, in November 2020, the High Court confirmed that Sacoolas has diplomatic immunity because the agreement did not include dependents of staff at the base. Had Sacoolas’ husband committed the alleged offense, he may not have been able to escape criminal liability. A revised agreement has now closed the loophole for the future, but nonetheless it is clearly unusual that such a loophole existed in the first place. Had that been the end of the story, there would be legal grounds for rejecting the extradition of Ms. Sacoolas to the United Kingdom for prosecution. However, as will be discussed, in February of this year, a court in Virginia heard how Ms. Sacoolas was a US intelligence official herself, which brings into jeopardy the diplomatic immunity the US claims she had.
In January 2020, after the UK requested Sacoolas’ extradition, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo turned down the request in an email to the British government. Although Pompeo offered no reason for the rejection, the US Department of State again stated Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity, and that granting the request “would render the invocation of diplomatic immunity a practical nullity and would set an extraordinarily troubling precedent.” It seems hard to believe that Pompeo and the State Department would be unaware of Sacoolas’ true employment status. If she did indeed have no diplomatic immunity, it begs the question what other reasons there were for the rejection. Given the fact that Pompeo suggested there was “a deal to be done” over Sacoolas and the US Investigation into Prince Andrew’s links to Jeffrey Epstein, as well as urging the UK to extradite Julian Assange, the reason does not appear to be straightforward. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab assured the US that there would be no deal making regarding the cases. Now that the Biden administration has taken the reins, there is still little indication that Sacoolas will return to the UK. On January 28th, the State Department stated the decision to reject Sacoolas’ extradition to the UK was “final”, once again reaffirming that Sacoolas had “immunity from criminal jurisdiction.” Raab has raised the case with the new US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, but it remains to be seen whether an answer will be given acknowledging the Virginia court statements regarding Sacoolas’ employment status.
Extradition is "the formal process for requesting the surrender of requested persons from one territory to another", in this instance, I am discussing extradition for the purposes of prosecution. US law requires an extradition treaty with the country who requests extradition in order for a request to be considered. The US-UK Extradition Treaty was signed in 2003 and unanimously consented to by Congress in 2006. Whereas British law does not require the United States to provide British judges with detailed, prima facie evidence that the suspect is guilty, 4th Amendment jurisprudence in the US requires evidence of probable cause before extraditing an individual from the United States. A previous high profile case of extradition between the two nations was that of the three British bankers extradited to the US in 2006 for wire fraud in connection with Enron. The bankers had allegedly conspired with senior officials of Enron, which had been subject to the “largest corporate bankruptcy in history” at that point. However, this does not mean that the UK has simply handed over whoever the United States government wants to prosecute. This is most evident in the case of Julian Assange, whose extradition has been denied due to fears surrounding his health and safety, and likely suicide from solitary confinement. The UK courts made reference to Assange’s long history of mental illness. Similar justifications were used in the case of Gary McKinnon, a hacker wanted for targeting US government computers. British courts in 2012, blocked his extradition because they deemed him too ill to face trial abroad. This can be distinguished from the present case, as the only apparent justification for rejecting extradition has been undermined in light of new information concerning Sacoolas’ employment status and corresponding diplomatic immunity. Sacoolas’ legal counsel admitted in court that she was employed by US intelligence at the time the crash occurred. This may mean the US had no right to claim Sacoolas ever had diplomatic immunity, as her immunity would be waived under the 1995 Croughton agreement.
Nations Under Pressure
In the case of Anne Sacoolas, the United States has failed to live up to the spirit and necessity of the US-UK Extradition Treaty. International law, whether in treaty form or not, comes with an implied, but “legitimate expectation” that it will be upheld. Good faith on the part of both nations is vital as an indicator of the strength of international cooperation. The issue of Sacoolas’ extradition is rather anomalous in international law, at least in regard to extradition cases which receive media attention. Most cases involve high profile criminals, often involving terrorism, or the trade in arms or narcotics. It is significant that Anne Sacoolas is not a stereotypical criminal in this sense. I can only hypothesize, but I question whether this perception counts in her favour. Perhaps her actions leading to the death of Harry Dunn are seen as less immoral, or that she is seen as less blameworthy in the eyes of the US government than a person such as Julian Assange, or the aforementioned bankers.
As one of the most powerful nations on the planet, the United States has a duty to live up to the promises it somehow so often fails to keep. Former President Trump and his henchman Mike Pompeo were always going to exhibit such aggressively masculine behaviour on the international stage that has often led to war throughout history. Gresson argues that the United States has often been guilty of believing in the need for a “cowboy-President persona". He uses the examples of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. In viewing the US as the strongest nation in the world, many American voters look to a stereotypical masculine man who can stand up to figures like Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. This attitude does not sit well with the British mentality concerning US-UK relations. I am reminded of a scene from Richard Curtis’ Love Actually, where the US President, played by Billy Bob Thornton, visits the UK to meet with the British Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant. The scene involves a press conference which goes as follows:
Press Conference Reporter: Mr. President, has it been a good visit?
The President : Very satisfactory indeed. We got what we came for, and our special relationship is still very special.
Press Conference Reporter : Prime Minister?
Prime Minister : I love that word "relationship." Covers all manner of sins, doesn't it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship; a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm... Britain. We may be a small country, but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.
A major issue with these aggressive US leadership qualities, as evidenced by the scene from Love Actually is that such behavior can come across as bullying, or at the very least, cause other nations to bend unwillingly to America’s own will. This might be all well and good when it comes to confronting dictators and well known human rights abusers, but it is increasingly harmful in fostering a united international community. The UK is one of America’s strongest allies. It is hardly a big ask to respect that status in accommodating requests for justice.
The Nation Versus The Individual
It is sometimes too easy for nations to get so lost in international relations that they forget the paramount importance of considering the individual lives at stake in these high-profile cases. At times it appears that Sacoolas, Harry Dunn’s family, and the other potential figures involved are being used as pawns in one large game of chess. To Harry Dunn’s parents, the issue of the US-UK relationship is likely to only be of relevance as a means to securing justice for their son. Dunn’s mother, Charlotte Charles made a promise to her son in the hospital before he passed away, promising “that justice would be done." The word “justice” is spattered across every article relating to Harry Dunn’s death, but whose justice is being done in this case? Sacoolas of course has her own family in America. Her legal team has stated how she fears she would “not get a fair trial" if she returns to the UK. The team has spoken about the incident itself as “a tragic mistake" and a “terrible but unintentional accident". Both things may well be true but the law on the books does not allow for mere mistakes to result in an avoidance of liability. There will be some who sympathise with Sacoolas, herself a mother, but the Dunn family are not asking for the world. A young man was killed in a collision that would not have occurred had Sacoolas been driving on the correct side of the road. Protecting Sacoolas from extradition, if she has no diplomatic immunity, is not justice for Harry Dunn.
Pompeo’s rejection of the extradition request regarding Anne Sacoolas appears to be a case of the US throwing its weight around. President Biden and Secretary Blinken have an opportunity to shed more light on the situation, but it remains to be seen whether they will alter the course of this case. Here, it appears that the closest thing to justice being done is the civil claim charging Sacoolas’ husband with vicarious liability under Virginia state law. The case will likely stay in the US court system, and the civil courts at that.
Only Harry Dunn’s family knows what justice means to them. The court in Virginia should at least give them some answers but these answers would likely mean that Sacoolas can still avoid criminal jurisdiction in the UK. The US Department of State’s website clearly states that "The United States has no closer partner than the United Kingdom." That partnership appears strained. Harry Dunn’s death highlights the polarity between the promises of the US-UK relationship and reality. The US must start rebuilding trust, with the UK, other allies, and the wider world. A move away from Trump’s isolationism towards Biden’s internationalist approach is a start. Actions speak louder than words, and a resolution to the present case would show a shared commitment to the values that both countries preach, but do not always practice.