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US embassy in London refuses to pay $18.6 million in congestion charge fees

By Louis Mian, CNN

(CNN) — The US embassy in London is refusing to pay more than $18.6 million in charges from unpaid congestion fees, according to Transport for London (TfL), which oversees the city’s vast transport network.

The congestion charge was introduced in 2003 in order to stem traffic and pollution in central London. Drivers within the congestion charge zone are required to pay a $19 daily charge between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays and 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekends.

TfL says it will pursue all unpaid fees and said in a statement it is even “pushing for the matter to be taken up at the International Court of Justice.”

The US embassy has declined to pay up and is claiming diplomatic immunity from the fines.

“In accordance with international law as reflected in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, our position is that the Congestion Charge is a tax from which diplomatic missions are exempt,” a US embassy spokesperson said.

“Our long-standing position is shared by many other diplomatic missions in London,” the spokesperson added.

However, TfL is insisting that in agreement with the UK government, London’s congestion charge constitutes a service and not tax. “This means that diplomats are not exempt from paying it.”

It has also politely declared there to be a “stubborn minority” of embassies that do not pay the charge, despite “representations through diplomatic channels,” and posted a lengthy list of offenders.

As of December 31, 2023, a total of 161 embassies, high commissions and consulates owed more than $182 million combined in unpaid congestion charge fees, according to TfL data.

According to TfL’s figures, the Japanese embassy owes the second highest amount from unpaid congestion charge fees, at around $12.8 million.

This not the first time a dispute has emerged over whether the US embassy should pay the charge.

In July 2005, the embassy issued a diplomatic note, claiming the charge “is a tax that cannot be lawfully imposed on the U.S. Government, its diplomatic and consular personnel, or its military force.”

While the embassy initially paid the charge, it stopped doing so on July 12, 2005, declaring the charge to be “in tension” with “duties owed to foreign missions and diplomats.”

In 2020, then UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said British officials held “meetings with a number of diplomatic missions and international organisations” to press for “payment of outstanding fines and debt,” including “unpaid congestion charge” fees.

The Japanese embassy told CNN “the Government of Japan is of the view that the charge corresponds to neither ‘dues and taxes… such as represent payment for specific services rendered’ nor ‘charges levied for specific services rendered’, as stipulated in the relevant international conventions, and therefore the Embassy, its diplomatic agents and their family members should be exempt from the charge.”

The UK Foreign Office said that diplomats are expected to pay the charge, adding that they believe there are no legal grounds for diplomatic exemptions.

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