Tuesday was the day diplomats at the United Nations have anticipated for months with dread and disdain: the day they had to start paying their parking tickets.
The city of New York’s new policy, backed by the U.S. State Department, of refusing to recognize diplomatic immunity for parking violations as of Tuesday has occasioned more impassioned rhetoric here in the last few days than most issues of war and peace. Equally controversial have been suggestions that diplomats who want to avoid tickets for illegal parking try using public transportation to get to work.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, preoccupied in the last few weeks with trying to end the bloody civil war in Zaire, took time out Tuesday to issue a call for calm on all sides and a return to civil dialogue.
But the U.N. committee in charge of housekeeping issues threatened to bring the dispute before the General Assembly - the 185-member supreme U.N. body - in an effort to “protect our rights,” in the words of Pedro Nunez, a delegate from Cuba, which collected 1,208 tickets last year on its 30 diplomatic vehicles.
“Diplomatic immunity is like virginity. Either you have it or you don’t,” added Jose Felicio, who represented Brazil (3,351 citations on 34 cars) at the committee meeting and complained that his ambassador’s car had been ticketed that very morning even though it was in a parking spot reserved for such vehicles.
In the end, the committee put off a decision on a General Assembly debate until April 10. Some members were ready to continue lobbing verbal grenades at what is known around here as “the host country,” but the translators on duty were ending their shift and the session was adjourned to avoid paying them overtime.
Tuesday, no one scaled the rhetorical heights reached earlier in the week by the French, who may not have been this convulsed since a California cabernet sauvignon first topped the Bordeaux in international wine competition. At a meeting Monday, French legal counsel Hubert Legal (his real name) fulminated that maybe the United Nations should move its headquarters to more civilized Geneva or Vienna, Austria, where police are more accommodating.
As for public transportation, Hubert said: “We are talking about an outdated, dangerous and dirty set of services, worse than in many major capitals, indeed many major capitals in the developing world.”
And, risking the wrath of New York cabbies, many of whom like to play chicken with pedestrians even when they’re in a good mood, Hubert judged most of the city’s taxis “wrecks.”
A spokesman for the French mission (503 citations on 23 cars last year) opined Tuesday that Legal may have been carried away and that moving the U.N. elsewhere isn’t really on Paris’ agenda.
Other delegations have been similarly, if less colorfully, outspoken.
For example, the subject came up last week when U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, addressed about 700 high school students in Brooklyn. Lavrov, whose mission leads the ticket parade by a wide margin, pointedly noted the number of U.S. diplomatic vehicles in Moscow, ripe for retaliation.
According to the U.S. mission, the city for years told U.N. diplomats they could ignore parking tickets, although the New York Police Department apparently never was directed to stop citing cars with the distinctive diplomatic plates. New Yorkers complained of finding driveways, bus stops and fire hydrants blocked, about diplomatic cars double-parking and standing at expired meters with impunity.
But since New Yorkers are famous for complaining, nobody paid much attention.
Then last December, two U.N. diplomats - a Russian and a Belorussan - emerged from from lunch to find two police officers ticketing their car. Argument led to altercation and then arrest. The diplomats appeared at a news conference bandaged like mummies and cried police brutality. The NYPD declared that the two diplomats had launched a drunken assault on the police officers.
The incident provided grist for the tabloids and impetus for a revision of city policy. Perhaps coincidentally - though plenty of people at the United Nations say not - New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is conspicuously behind the new policy, is up for re-election this year.
In 1996, city officials say, 116,345 tickets were issued to U.N. diplomatic cars, with 17,936 more given to consular vehicles, which also are subject to the new rules. Some U.N. missions pay promptly - Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro singled out Canada and Great Britain as among the law abiding - but most do not, the city contends. There is no official accounting of the scofflaws, but Russia received the largest number of citations, 31,388 on 178 vehicles, and North Korea averaged the most per vehicle, 38.3 a month.
“The fact is that they’ve gotten away with this for a very long time,” Giuliani said Tuesday.
“All we’re asking is that they show respect for the laws of the city of New York.”
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