Fairfax reported on Monday that staff at foreign embassies were using diplomatic immunity to escape punishment for serious offences, including leading police on car chases through Canberra streets and high-range drink-driving offences.
But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has told foreign governments that it does not consider traffic offences to be covered by diplomatic immunity and has called on embassies to pay their fines.
The Australian Capital Territory government tried 200 times last year to chase up fines imposed on lead-footed embassy staffers using their official cars to speed on Canberra’s roads.
But their reminder notices were mostly ignored.
Likewise, police who have pulled over and breathalysed drink-driving diplomats on Canberra’s roads have been powerless to arrest them, and been forced to let them go on their way.
The Vienna Convention, the treaty that bestows diplomatic immunity, protects diplomats from any form of arrest or detention and from civil or criminal prosecution, though their home country may choose to waive this right.
But DFAT is quite clear in its advice to foreign governments that it does not consider fines for speeding or other traffic infringements to be covered by diplomatic immunity.
The departments says its own staff are expected to pay traffic infringements they incur while working overseas and calls on foreign embassies in Canberra to just pay their fines.
“The department is of the view that payment of traffic or parking fines by diplomatic and consular staff does not require or constitute waiver of immunity from jurisdiction under the Vienna conventions,” the advice states.
“The Australian authorities expect that persons holding diplomatic or consular immunity will pay any fine resulting from infringement notices, unless it is their intention to contest the notice.
“The department finds it difficult to accept the view that traffic infringements, including parking and speeding infringements, can be regarded as occurring in the course of the performance of official duties, even in the most exceptional circumstances.”
DFAT also makes it clear that it will not intervene with local authorities on behalf of embassies or diplomats trying to overturn fines.
In practice though, if an embassy simply ignores a traffic fine, the territory government is powerless, under the convention , to take it to court.
Under the convention, the only formal way to clamp down on the behaviour of a diplomat is to declare them “persona-non-grata” and expel them from the country, a power most often used in cases of espionage.
Less formally, embassies are sometimes asked, in a low-key way, by the host country’s authorities to send a staffer home if their conduct is deemed unacceptable.
Documents published by DFAT under freedom of information laws revealed a Saudi Arabian diplomat driving at 135km/h past Canberra’s Parliament House at 2am on a Tuesday, leading police on a pursuit, failing to provide a valid licence, blaming their behaviour on a lack of antibiotics and getting away with it.
Another Saudi diplomat was caught speeding through an intersection at 107km/h in an 80km/h zone, then leading police on a chase which was abandoned amid fears for public safety.
Another Saudi, who was caught at 126km/h in an 80km/h zone, told police he was driving his father’s car and was speeding “because he needed to go to the toilet”. The Royal Saudi Embassy in Canberra did not respond on Monday to requests for comment.