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Postcard: Diplomatic immunity versus impunity

New figures reveal foreign diplomats in the UK owe millions in traffic fines and are accused of serious crimes, such as human trafficking. In this postcard, Carol Allen looks at their crimes and misdemeanors.

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Diplomats in the UK break the rules

Is it coincidence, I wonder, that these figures have been released at this time of economic crisis and belt tightening? After all, over 36 million pounds (43.6 million euros, $54 million) owing in unpaid congestion charges and half a million quid for parking and other traffic offenses does seem a lot of money. Although, when set against a national budget deficit of 150 billion pounds, it's a drop in the ocean.

However, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office valiantly did its bit in March by writing to all the offenders asking them to pay up. They collected a little over 7,500 pounds, with that half a million or so still to come - or not, as the case may be. And I suspect that 7,500 barely covered the costs of the letter writing and postage, if you compare that, say, to how much it costs to get a solicitor to write a letter.

The biggest bone of contention on the traffic front, though, is the congestion charge for using the busiest roads at the busiest times, with the biggest offender being the United States, hotly pursued by Russia and Japan. You see, one of the perks of diplomatic immunity is freedom from taxes in the host nation. The government maintains it's not a tax, the diplomats maintain it is. And I tend to agree with them. It's an extra tax on driving in London, for goodness sake!

Congestion charge is also a bit of a sore spot with many Londoners, particularly the questionable extension, which covers the largely residential Western area. Mayor Boris Johnson collected loads of votes for his promise to remove it when elected two years ago and we're still waiting for him to fulfill that promise.

Carol Allen

Carol Allen wonders if diplomats could help ease the national debt by paying up

However, back to the diplomats and the other more interesting crimes they are alleged to have committed, in what the Daily Mail here describes rather quaintly as "an extraordinary crime spree carried out by embassy workers under the cloak of diplomatic immunity." Which conjures up a colorful picture of gangs of diplomats of many nations prowling the town in Burglar Bill masks with bags marked 'Swag' breaking into the treasury - which would be a really dumb idea, because as we all know, that particular safe is empty. Someone got there first, mate.

Serious crime allegations as opposed to traffic offenses include shoplifting and other theft, drink driving, human trafficking, actual bodily harm, sexual assault and threatening to kill someone. "Diplomatic immunity has become diplomatic impunity," said a word-playing leading lawyer this week.

But a former British ambassador to Moscow points out that the immunity is a two-way street and a valuable protection for all countries from what he describes as "ill-motivated" administrations looking for ways of hassling foreign diplomats on their territory. How else has James Bond been able to operate his license to kill all these years? Although maybe not. The only crime not covered by the agreement is espionage. Instant deportation.

We all remember the number of press and cultural attaches and such who have been expelled from various countries over the years. There is a sort of gentleman's agreement that a country will investigate serious crimes allegations against their diplomats under their own laws, but traffic offenses, well, that's another matter.

An interesting study in the US in 2006 claimed there was a significant correlation between home-country corruption and unpaid parking fines. I'm not naming names here on the grounds that the embassy in question might know my address.

Certain cities though, including The Hague, have found a practical solution to the problem - instead of trying to fine the owners, they impound the car. A diplomat can't demand the release of an impounded car based on his status. So presumably we could then sell off the cars and that would raise a few bob towards diminishing the national debt.

Author: Carol Allen
Editor: Helen Seeney

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