THIS WEEK THE HOUSE unanimously approved a measure that would reduce the number of foreign embassy personnel who have full diplomatic immunity from an estimated 6,000 to around 2,200. The action is no less welcome for being years overdue. If approved as expected when the Senate reconvenes after the August recess, the measure will bring this country into full compliance with a 1972 agreement on the treatment of diplomats that was signed by over 120 nations.
Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D. Fla.), the bill's chief sponsor, calls it the "diplomatic responsibility bill," which strikes us as a good description. For like the international agreement from which it flows, the bills preserves a proper measures of respect for valid diplomatic functions. But it also places a greater measure of responsibility on embassy personnel not to abuse their privileges. Although the U.S. signed the 1972 Vienne Convention on Diplomatic Relations, we have continued to follow our own diplomatic immunity law, enacted in 1790, which granted immunity to everyone from ambassadors and their families to household servants. In 190 years, as might images, there has been a pretty huge increase in both missions to the U.S. and their size. The larger increase in the number of low-ranking embassy personnel is one reason the 190-year-old law should be repealed. Some of these have escaped prosecution for illegal acts they committed, or more commonly, for parking violations that had nothing to do with embassy business.
Under the new bill, top-ranking diplomats and their families would continue to enjoy full immunity. Lower-ranking embassy personeel would be iummune from criminal prosecution but could be sued for actions taken as private individuals. Household servants would lose all immunity. Among other things, the new law means that city officials here and in New York in the future should be able to recover some of the sunstantial fines for parking violations embassy personnel amass. And perhaps it will make the reckless drivers on the embassy staffs more careful. But the Fascell bill isn't a punitive measure. Rather, its intent is to ensure that foreign embassy personnel here are subject to the same internationally agreed-upon rules that American embassy personnel follow overseas. It only seems fair.