Diplomatic dodgers run up big fine for the taxpayer

Embassy staff are abusing immunity rules and costing Britain dear. Christopher Bellamy reports
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Foreign diplomats in London rack up unpaid parking fines every year of about pounds 55,000, according to the Foreign Office. The huge figure indicates that London - like New York - could well decide to hit back at diplomats abusing their diplomatic privilege to break the law.

The issue has caused a row in New York, where a United Nations committee has threatened to take the issue of tough new parking rules to the General Assembly. The city estimates that diplomats owe a total of $5.4m (pounds 3.3m) in parking fines.

New York's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has introduced new regulations which allow towing of foreign diplomats' cars parked illegally and removal of their licence plates if they fail to pay tickets within a year. A special police "hot line" is being set up so that vehicles using spots for which they have no authorisation could be towed away. Opponents claim the plan is a violation of diplomatic immunity under international law.

"Diplomatic immunity is like virginity," said Jose Eduardo Martins Felicio, of Brazil. "Either you have it or you have not. I have not seen a half- virgin."

During Monday's committee session, a French diplomat, Hubert Legal, said that New York City "isn't the only place to put the UN as a headquarters". Nicholas Burns, a State Department spokesman, called Mr Legal's remarks "perfectly ridiculous" and expressed irritation with the foreign delegations which ignore parking laws.

"There's one delegation that has five cars and [had] 1,200 parking tickets in 1996," Mr Burns said. He urged these delegations to "stop this diplomatic whining about parking tickets. They ought to pay them and first and foremost they ought to obey our laws".

Like their counterparts in New York, the 5,000 foreign diplomats and their 6,000 dependents living in London, plus 5,000 officers and dependents working for international organisations, are all entitled to varying degrees of diplomatic immunity and diplomatic privileges. These are all designed to enable them to do their jobs effectively - to guarantee the smooth conduct of business and preserve the secrecy of diplomatic communications. Most do not abuse those privileges.

Some do, however. During 1995, 28 serious offences were committed by people entitled to diplomatic immunity. Most of the offences involved drink-driving and shoplifting. But only five diplomats or members of their families were withdrawn from their posts as a result of these alleged offences.

Parking on red or yellow lines or in residents' parking spaces, which attract varying fines - pounds 35 on average - is the most common abuse of diplomatic immunity. The latest figures revealed 1,586 unpaid parking fines during 1995. The 1996 figures will be available shortly, the Foreign Office said yesterday. At pounds 35 each these would total pounds 55,000. It is not in foreign embassies' interest to upset the locals, and most of them pay up - by April last year they had paid pounds 11,600.

The Foreign Office periodically publishes a league table. The worst offenders in 1995 were the Nigerians, with 117 tickets, followed by India with 83, Ghana with 66, Sudan with 45 and Malaysia with 32. Iran, the Russian Federation and Zimbabwe tied as a relatively law-abiding 22nd with 15 and Tanzania, Albania and the United States a law-abiding 25th with 14.

About this time each year the Foreign Office writes to all the 142 embassies and high commissions and 104 consulates general inviting them to pay off all outstanding parking fines. If the fines are not paid, the diplomats concerned can eventually be asked to leave the country.

The large numbers of diplomats cost Britain in other ways. The figure for parking fines is tiny compared with the pounds 25m of VAT refunded on goods and services to diplomats and employees of international organisations in the last year.

Tens of thousands above the law

Hundreds of thousands of people living in Europe enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution due to their diplomatic status. They include representatives of international organisations such as the European Union, as well as a broad range of aid and governmental agencies, courts and commissions, writes Adrian Hadland.

In Geneva alone, more than 50,000 people have some kind of immunity: 21,000 broadly classified as diplomats and 33,000 family members, according to a Swiss government official.

While the conferment of immunity does technically grant carte blanche to these people to ignore the laws of the host country, international conventions and standard diplomatic protocol prevent the abuse of immunity for more serious crimes.

"We expect our guests to respect our laws - that should be a standard," the Swiss official said.

In Vienna, towed diplomatic cars are returned to their owners free of charge.

"We see the advantages of having organisations like the UN in our cities rather than the disadvantages of keeping them," one Austrian government official said.