Diplomatic immunity shields repeat driving offenders

Erin Tennant, ninemsn
10:08am January 31, 2013

More than two dozen foreign diplomats and consular officials have been warned about repeated or serious driving offences on Australian soil over the past three years.

The offences include drink driving, speeding more than 30km/h over the limit, running red lights, driving while talking on a mobile phone and not wearing a seatbelt.

But none of the offenders can be prosecuted or even lose their driving licence because of diplomatic immunity.

The offences are outlined in 26 warning letters sent by the Department of Foreign Affairs since 2010 to the heads of various foreign embassies and consulates about members of staff who had lost seven or more demerit points on their licence or who were involved in a serious driving incident that came to the attention of police.

Read the documents here.

One letter describes a diplomat who lost 15 demerit points from 11 speeding fines in just 15 months.

Another refers to a diplomat who was deemed too drunk to continue driving after being intercepted by police on Canberra's Commonwealth Avenue Bridge at 1am on a Sunday. Police only agreed to release him when one of his own passengers agreed to get behind the wheel and take him home.

The Department refused ninemsn's freedom-of-information request to identify the names of these drivers or the foreign nations they represent.

It also redacted almost all details on serious incidents involving police.

The Department's chief of protocol, Sally Mansfield, said disclosing such details could damage Australia's good relations with foreign governments and "their willingness to cooperate and communicate with Australian government officials in the future."

Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at ANU, said such an attitude was in keeping with diplomatic protocols.

"Any indiscretions from diplomats are not made public for fear of creating embarrassment and, ultimately, undesirable repercussions for the Australian Government and its bilateral relationships," he said.

The privilege of immunity, established in 1961 by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, also means that Australian officials are limited to merely admonishing foreign diplomat drivers who repeatedly break the law.

The Department's warning letters uses standard phrases like "a worrying disregard for public safety" or "we would regard any further traffic infringements with the utmost seriousness" when pleading with foreign missions to rein in their problem drivers.

"I would expect a senior diplomatic officer to be setting a better example for his colleagues," the Department's chief of protocol writes in one letter.

Protocol guidelines say that the Department may request that a diplomat or consular official guilty of serious driving offences leave the country.

But Australian officials have not made any such request for at least the past three years, a spokeswoman said.

She added that the Department expects foreign diplomats to pay any traffic infringements or parking fines "consistent with their obligation under the Vienna Convention to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State."

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act
Author: Erin Tennant, Approving editor: Mark Worley

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