Originally created 01/17/97

End `immunity' abuses



Republic of Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze is drawing raves for his decision not to let a diplomat charged in a fatal Washington, D.C., car crash return home. He says he acted "on moral and ethical grounds."

Had Shevardnadze's conscience not been his guide, there was talk of the loss of $30 million in U.S. foreign aid. Whatever the reason, he did the right thing. By waiving diplomatic immunity, he forced his embassy's second-ranking envoy to stand trial in this country for drunkenness and speeding that took the life of a 16-year-old girl.

Shevardnadze's decision temporarily takes some steam out of Americans' growing anger over diplomatic immunity, which gives foreign diplomats license to ignore U.S. laws, even criminal ones. If they're caught, they simply invoke immunity and go home.

Defenders of the process contend that immunity cuts both ways. It protects U.S. diplomats abroad from being imprisoned on phony charges.

This seems plausible, except that American envoys are not known for abusing the system; many foreign diplomats are - because they know they can get away with it.

Moreover, there should be a distinction between being held on trumped-up charges and on real ones. There was nothing trumped-up about the drunken Georgia diplomat's reckless driving that took a teen-ager's life.

As a practical matter, Shevardnadze's waiver was unprecedented and is likely to remain so. Other heads of state aren't expected to follow his example.

Congress and the White House must work together on a bipartisan basis to persuade the international community to develop reforms to end the widespread abuse of diplomatic immunity. The American people are fed up with it.