In what may eventually result in a huge diplomatic incident, Ecuador has just offered WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange asylum.Assange is of course due to be extradited from the UK for a number of sex crimes in Sweden. His supporters believe that once he arrives in Sweden, he will be extradited to the USA to face a death penalty for Wikileaks-related crimes.
Assange has technically broken his bail by hiding out in the Ecuadorean Embassy (he’s been there since June), meaning that he would be arrested if he left the confines of the embassy. Ecuador, however, has said that Assange may be allowed to stay indefinitely in the embassy (which doesn’t sound appealing at all — he spends almost all his time in a room with no windows).
The craziest part of this whole thing is that the UK has threatened to storm Ecuador’s London Embassy and arrest Assange. Sky News have reportedly heard that the UK will give Ecuador one week’s notice before they come in.
Can they really do this?
While an embassy is not technically sovereign territory of the represented state, they are generally not subject to the host state laws under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, and the host nation’s police cannot enter without permission. The UK is reportedly hoping to use a law known as the “Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987” to enter and arrest Assange. The act was created after a British police officer, PC Yvonne Fletcher, was shot dead by a gunman believed to be shooting from the window of the Libyan embassy.
The law effectively ends the diplomatic immunity of the embassy if the embassy is being “misused”. It’s hard to find an instance of the law being used in a case as sensitive as this — it was used to evict squatters at the Cambodian Embassy in 1987 — and the AP reports it has never been used to force entry into an embassy.
The 1987 law does state that it can only be used if it is “permissible under international law”. Here, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comes into play:
- (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
- (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Are Assange’s crimes “non-political” or “from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations”? Technically, the crime he is being extradited for is a non-political sexual crime, but the crime he believes he will be extradited for once in Sweden could definitely be considered political.
The use of the law would certainly be controversial. Former UK ambassador Craig Murray said that the decision to enter the Ecuadorian embassy would “be, beyond any argument, a blatant breach of the Vienna Convention of 1961“.
Perhaps an even bigger problem, however, is the practical implications of such a move. The UK would likely face retaliations from Ecuador and its allies. It may also find other, more powerful, states using the raid as a justification for their own actions against UK diplomatic missions. An additional problem is the large number of Assange supporters outside the embassy in London — any attempt to arrest Assange would surely result in some messy scenes being broadcast around the world.
The UK is reportedly trying to sort out a diplomatic agreement behind the scenes, perhaps the most realistic outcome. The big problem, however, is that their threat to enter the embassy and arrest Assange has ignited extreme anger — Ecuador’s foreign minister said “We are not a British colony” last night. The vitriol from the UK is noticeable too —British MP Louise Mensch has called for the UK to break off relations with Ecuador. Finding a middle ground may be difficult.
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