Ecuador has finally brought matters to a head by granting Julian Assange political asylum in its London embassy. The reaction, or more appropriately overreaction, of the British government is worrisome and raises some important issues.
The situation went beyond farce to high drama when, on August 16, the British police knocked on the door of the Ecuadorian embassy to deliver a very undiplomatic threatening letter. It read, in part:
You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the embassy. We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr. Assange’s presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.
Indeed, the Act allows the government to take action to withdraw recognition from diplomatic premises. Section 1(3) says:
In no case is land to be regarded as a state’s diplomatic or consular premises for the purposes of any enactment or rule of law unless it has been so accepted or the secretary of state has given that state consent under this section in relation to it; and if — (a) a state ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post; or (b) the secretary of state withdraws his acceptance or consents in relations to land, it thereupon ceases to be diplomatic or consular premises for the purposes of all enactments and rules of law.
Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, however, diplomatic posts are treated as the territory of the foreign nation. What extraordinary circumstances did the UK envisage in brushing aside this keystone of international diplomacy?
The circumstances that prompted this law were truly extraordinary. In 1984, protesters staged a siege of the Libyan embassy in London. At one point, someone inside the building fatally shot British police officer Yvonne Fletcher. As far as I know, Julian Assange has not taken any pot-shots at British police or anyone else. His “crime” lies in believing that the US government is orchestrating his persecution by transferring him to a jurisdiction that will allow them to extradite him for releasing highly sensitive and embarrassing documents via WikiLeaks.
The British government is setting a very dangerous precedent for all asylum seekers by implying that it is the home government’s decision on whether or not an embassy is being used for a legitimate purpose. Obviously, all asylum seekers believe that they are the victims of an injustice by that government. It therefore follows that every government believes that harboring asylum seekers is an improper purpose. Repressive regimes around the world must be licking their chops in anticipation that the UK government will proceed with its threat.
Consider what happened in the Cold War. Critic of communism, Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, for example, took refuge in the US embassy after the Soviet invasion and ended up spending the next fifteen years inside the embassy compound with local police keeping a 24-hour watch to prevent him from escaping. He was eventually permitted to leave Hungary in 1971. Undoubtedly, had the authoritarian government of Hungary possessed the power to decide whether harboring Mindszenty was a legitimate purpose of the US embassy, Hungary would have said it wasn’t and sent in the police to deposit him into a dank dungeon before summarily dispatching him. Evidently, the Hungarian government had more respect for international law than the UK government.
Going back to Assange, is he being paranoid or does he have good reason to believe that the US is working behind the scenes to get him? Let’s look at the evidence. When the original allegations of sexual misconduct were first aired, Assange made himself available for questioning. The authorities didn’t bother interrogating him and even granted him permission to leave. They later changed their minds and sought his extradition from the UK. According to Naomi Wolf, Sweden prosecutors do not normally go to such efforts, and Assange is receiving special treatment. The British authorities then worked at breakneck speed to expedite the extradition. Now, they are willing to tear up hundreds of years of diplomatic convention to get their man. But for what purpose? To be questioned by the Swedish authorities? At no point has he been prosecuted or even charged with a criminal offense.
His only proven offence has been to release secret cables that have made governments uncomfortable, and in some instances have shown them to be acting in ways that are against the public interest. It not only embarrassed the US government, but also those in Whitehall. He has made a lot of powerful enemies, and now they are ready to make an example of him.
While there are important principles to defend in this case, it is necessary to separate the man from these principles. Assange has many flaws, and I believe he should be held accountable for his behavior to the two women who alleged the sexual misconducts. However, there is another agenda at play, which sadly means that these women are unlikely ever to receive justice.