Ecuador granted asylum to Julian Assange today, an act that will further escalate the conflict between Britain and Ecuador. As I discussed on BBC last night, there are some common legal misunderstandings about the status of an embassy, but as a practical matter Assange should be beyond the reach of the English. While the government has threatened to strip the embassy of diplomatic status and grad Assange, it is in my view an empty threat. However, Assange is not likely to see Ecuador any time soon since he can be arrested trying to leave the country.
Assange has embarrassed the United States with disclosures on Wikileaks that revealed, among other things that the government has lied to the public on critical matters. This includes disclosures of how the Obama Administration threatened Spain in order to protect Bush officials from being investigated for war crimes and torture.
It is widely believed that the United States government is pressuring both the government of England and Sweden on arresting Assange to allow it to extradite him. There is a rumored sealed indictment in the United States, which may prosecute Assange for espionage — a highly troubling prosecution for journalists and whistleblowers.
The British threat to raid the embassy is not legally unfounded. There is a common misunderstanding about embassies which are not legally “the soil of the foreign government.” An embassy in London sits on English soil and that country has jurisdiction over it. However, siting on that land is a building occupied with people with diplomatic immunity. As such, it is considered inviolate.
The British government is threatening to use a 1987 British law it says permits the revocation of diplomatic status of a building if the foreign power occupying it “ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post.” The use of the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act however would trigger an international outcry and beg for acts of retaliations.
The the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations requires diplomats to comply with the laws of the host country and international law does not expressly endorse diplomatic asylum in such cases. That 1961 convention suggests that Ecuador is legally obligated to turn over Assange.
However, countries routinely are faced with such requests — most of which are turned away. However, the United States recently faced this very same dilemma in Beijing when a blind activist fled to our own embassy. Likewise, the U.S. faced this problem when Cardinal Mindszenty took refuge in our embassy in Budapest following the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
Ecuador may take a different view due to the agreement following the 1949 controversy over Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, leader of the Peruvian APRA movement, who took refuge in the Colombian embassy in Lima. The International Court of Justice ruled against the claim of diplomatic asylum. This led to countries in Latin America adopting of convention supporting such claims, but England is not part of that agreement.
Technically, Ecuador could conceivable get Assange as far as the airport if he rides in an embassy car with a diplomat. However, he has to step out of that car at some point and will face arrest.
It is a classic standoff. The extent to which Britain has pursued the case and issued the threatening letter to Ecuador probably reflects the degree of pressure coming from the Obama Administration. Officials have made it clear that they want Assange’s head on a pike and the best way to do that is to get him to Sweden on the sexual assault charges. Ecuador has offered to let Swedish prosecutors interview Assange at the embassy, but that country has refused.
I would be astonished if England uses its law to strip the embassy of its status. However, I would not be surprised to learn that Obama officials are pushing for precisely that step. Many of Assange’s supporters are likely to point out that we would have to wait for the next Wikileaks dump to learn the truth on that one.