Magazine article Insight on the News

Immunity No Longer Means Impunity for Diplomats?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Immunity No Longer Means Impunity for Diplomats?

Article excerpt

Noting that moral principle outweighs political considerations, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said his government would waive the diplomatic immunity of its envoy involved in a car accident in early January that killed a 16-year-old girl from a Washington suburb.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, had asked President Clinton to withhold $30 million in aid to the republic until it waived immunity for Gueorgui Makharadze, 35, who specializes in commercial affairs at the Georgian Embassy.

But Shevardnadze emphasized that his decision "must not be considered as though a large country has brought a small one to its knees," and he called for a reexamination of diplomatic immunity in the post-Cold War era.

"New relations call for a new set of guidelines governing the operation of diplomatic services," he said in a statement. "Rules of diplomatic conduct must create a basis for greater fairness and objectivity. Often the mantle of state succeeds in protect" the diplomat while the average citizen ... suffers."

Shevardnadze's decision is almost unprecedented. Diplomats have lost their immunity when charged with minor crimes but rarely in a case this serious. Makharadze could face charges ranging from negligent homicide to second-degree murder "It has been the practice of the Clinton administration in [serious criminal cases] to request the departure of the offending diplomat," says State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.

The issue of a diplomat's behavior in the United States sometimes is contentious. Along with the Makharadze case, the State Department is dealing with a dispute among Russia, Belarus and New York City involving a brawl between envoys and police.

Persistent complaints about diplomats' behavior prompted Congress two years ago to pass a law that withholds foreign aid for countries that have unpaid parking tickets or other court fines. The issue is a delicate one for the State Department, which despite the controversy surrounding Makharadze offered a strong defense of the principle of diplomatic immunity.

"It makes sense ... for us to maintain the practice and law of diplomatic immunity because it protects Americans overseas," says Burns. "But it also stands to reason that diplomats serving in the United States obey our laws, that they do not willfully violate laws."

He rejected suggestions that the Makharadze case argued the need for a reevaluation of the diplomatic-immunity system. Critics have asked that blanket immunity traditionally offered diplomats be limited to functions and incidents related to their work, not to cases such as traffic accidents. …

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