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UN and US Try to Avoid Major Spat In Parking Ticket Tit-for-Tat

Most of the 134,000 parking tickets that UN diplomats got in last year went unpaid. Now New York City is cracking down.

A cloud of indignation has settled over the United Nations.

At issue is not world indifference to the refugee crisis in Zaire, or the breakdown of the Middle East peace talks, but parking tickets.

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The city of New York last week declared it will confiscate diplomats' license plates if they don't pay up. That prompted more than one irate "UNer" to suggest the world body pull up stakes and move to Vienna.

The debate has generated so much heat, a panel will decide today whether to send it on to the General Assembly.

At the heart of the dispute is diplomatic immunity, the sacred law that protects all international envoys on foreign soil. If New York is allowed to confiscate a license plate, the logic goes, couldn't a hostile state then justify harassing a diplomat in another way?

"Diplomatic immunity is like virginity. You either have it or you don't have it," Brazilian legal counselor Jose Eduardo Martins Felicio angrily intoned last week.

City residents, on the other hand, are fed up. For years, they've watched diplomats park indiscriminately in front of fire hydrants, in no parking zones, even wedged up on the curb. They want it to stop, even though the international body and its related agencies pour an estimated $3.2 billion dollars annually into the city and surrounding areas.

"I think it's outrageous they'd expect consideration when ... we get none." says Leslie Siben, a New Yorker who lives near the UN.

Last year, police handed out more than 134,000 parking tickets to cars with diplomatic plates, most of which went unpaid. The top offender was Russia, with more than 31,000 tickets. Indonesia was a far off second with just over 5,700 summonses. With the average summons costing about $40 dollars, New York believes it's owed as much as $5 million.

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"Being a diplomat doesn't mean you can break the law. Immunity is there to protect you against harassment," says an American diplomat who's working to resolve the dispute, and for now, would prefer his name not be used.

Diplomatic parking has always been controversial in New York, but the issue escalated in January after police and two officials from Russia and Belarus got into a scuffle. The police contend the diplomats were not only parked in front of a hydrant, but were also drunk. They say the envoys became abusive after the officers tried to keep them from driving. The diplomats charged the police attacked them with "unacceptable brutality." They filed a formal complaint with the UN.

Meanwhile in Moscow, there was immediate reaction, according to local reports. Within days of the New York incident, Moscow traffic police stopped more than a thousand Westerners, mostly Americans, for routine traffic and document checks near the American embassy.

It's such tit-for-tat "cold war-esque" behavior that no one wants repeated. Indeed, UN undersecretary for legal affairs Hans Corell says diplomats should follow the laws of host countries.

Officials from the UN, the US mission and the city are working feverishly to iron out the details before it erupts into an international incident. Most are confident they can come to agreement and leave the "frank" discussions behind.

"I think it's pretty much a tempest in a teapot that will blow over," says one UN official confidently, noting that Washington, D.C., imposed similar parking regulations and they work just fine there.

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