Diplomats, Diplomatic Immunity and Drink Driving

In the United States, in 1997, The Deputy Ambassador of The Republic of Georgia, Dueorgui Makharadze, killed a 16-year-old girl in an act of vehicular homicide while carrying a blood alcohol level of 0.15%. Under the doctrine of diplomatic immunity, police in the United States weren’t allowed to arrest, or even detain, him.

The principles of diplomatic immunity are enshrined in the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations which came into force in the 1960s and which Australia has ratified. Diplomatic immunity is designed to protect diplomats, their staff members and the families of both from harassment or imprisonment by the host country. Immunity is done on a reciprocal basis; two countries agree to guarantee the safety of the diplomats of the other.

Operationally, this means the police forces of the host country can’t control the physical movement of the diplomat. The diplomat can’t be detained in any fashion. This isn’t set in concrete. When a diplomat is pulled over and found to be intoxicated. The police will prevent him from continued driving by removing him from the vehicle and taking his keys.

In serious crimes, the other country will often remove the immunity of the diplomat in question and allow the host country to prosecute or will bring the diplomat home and prosecute them in their own courts. In the case of the Georgian diplomat, the government of Georgia removed his diplomatic immunity, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 7 to 21 years in an American prison.

Section 8.2.3 of the protocol guidelines published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade state that a traffic officer can perform a traffic stop of a car driven by an individual with diplomatic immunity and that the car must always stop. This act doesn’t constitute detention or involve a question of immunity since the stop is being done within the responsibilities of the police to guarantee public safety and the diplomat hasn’t identified themselves as someone who possesses immunity.

The police can request that the driver takes a Breathalyser test. The diplomat can refuse, however. Should the driver of the car refuse to take a alcohol breath test, the police are given the power to give a summons to the driver for the offence of failing to take a breath test. The officer may add this offence to any other offences which may have occurred during the incident. The summons can be ignored, however. The police can stop the driver from continued driving but can’t arrest him or force him to take another means of transportation.

More than two dozen consular officials and diplomats have been stopped for repeated or serious offences over the past three years and little has come of it. The offences include speeding more than 30n km/h over the speed limit, drink driving, not using the seat belt and talking on a mobile phone while driving. Australian authorities can do more than request that steps be taken by the foreign country to curb the offensive behaviour.

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None of the offenders have lost their driving privileges or been prosecuted because all have taken advantage of their diplomatic immunity. The offences are contained in 26 warning letters written by the Department of Foreign Affairs in the last three years to foreign consulates describing offences committed by staff members. The letters are sent out when any foreign individual loses seven or more demerit points or are involved in a serious driving incident that results in police attention.

One letter tells of a diplomat who lost 15 points because of 11 speeding fines over the course of just 15 months. Another letter talks of a diplomat who was too drunk to continue driving after being stopped by police on Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Canberra at one in the morning. Police were unable to do anything about the situation except keep the individual from driving. The situation was at a standstill until one of the passengers volunteered to drive the diplomat home.

The letters sent by the Department used phrases such as “a worrying disregard for public safety” and a promise to view continued traffic infringements with “utmost seriousness. The Department may ask the government of the foreign country to remove the offending diplomat or consular official from the country. The names and other details of these traffic stops are unavailable in the public record. No details of such incidents are made public to maintain good relations with the foreign governments and insure their continued willingness to cooperate with the Australian government in the future.

Australia isn’t the only country in the world to run into the brick wall of diplomatic immunity. The Hague, grown tired of having citations ignored and fines unpaid, took to impounding the cars of serious offenders. Diplomats can’t demand the release of their cars based on diplomatic immunity. Parking violations around the United Nations building in New York City by six countries, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Bulgaria and Mozambique, in a five year period amounted to more than 100 violations per diplomat.

London levies a congestion charge, a special fine for using a vehicle during rush hour beyond the allowable limit, and some embassies have decided not to pay. The total has surpassed ï¿¡58 million as of 2012 with ï¿¡6 million of that belonging to the American embassy. The Russian, Japanese and German embassies have each accounted for ï¿¡2 million.

There is no real answer for this problem. Diplomats from Australia must be protected in other countries and we must protect the diplomats from those countries in Australia. Sadly, traffic deaths will continue to result from the misbehaviour of diplomats on Australian streets.

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