Diplomatic Immunity

Because of diplomatic immunity, it appeared likely that the case of George Makharadze, a Georgian diplomat involved in an automobile accident that killed a 16-year-old Maryland girl, would not be fully investigated or, if necessary, prosecuted.

And because of diplomatic immunity, a Russian diplomat at the United Nations, Boris Obnossov, was able to amass 386 traffic tickets in 1996 - and not pay any of them.

The tickets came to light after Mr. Obnossov and a fellow UN diplomat from Belarus were involved in a scuffle with New York police when they parked too close to a fire hydrant. Police claim the two were drunk and abusive. The Russian government says the officers attacked the diplomats without provocation. Both sides are demanding an apology. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants the two men to leave New York.

Diplomatic immunity, which shelters accredited diplomats from civil and criminal charges while working in foreign countries, is necessary for one important reason: to keep those posted in hostile countries from being arrested on political whims.

Indeed, as State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said recently, diplomatic immunity has protected US diplomats abroad and therefore has served this country well. "We couldn't in good conscience send our diplomats to places, police states, where we know they wouldn't receive a fair trial if a government wanted to bring trumped-up charges against them," he said.

Diplomatic immunity was codified by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961.

But diplomats also are - and should be - legally bound to respect the laws of the country to which they are accredited, and most do: The State Department released statistics last week showing that the diplomatic community in the US is better behaved than the population at large. But any diplomat who racks up 386 traffic violation tickets in the course of a year and refuses to pay isn't a welcome guest, as Mayor Giuliani has made clear.

Sometimes, as Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze said last week, diplomats are protected while average citizens suffer. Mr. Shevardnadze unexpectedly announced Friday that he was prepared to waive Makharadze's immunity so he can face charges. US officials have rightly called Shevardnadze's actions courageous: Governments rarely waive diplomatic immunity for fear of setting a precedent.

Immunity remains a practical protection to diplomats, but it should not be absolute. Everyone - and that includes foreign diplomats - should understand their obligation to obey the laws of the land.

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