The Strange Case of Julian Assange

Julian Assange addresses supporters from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

Julian Assange addresses supporters from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

A little over a week ago, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was granted asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Assange had been slated for deportation to Sweden on charges of sexual assault. Assange is, of course, most well-known for his role as the head of Wikileaks, an organization that rose to prominence after it leaked more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables covering a wide range of topics in 2010.

The decision of the government of Ecuador to grant Assange asylum raises some interesting questions in international law. Traditionally, diplomatic missions are considered extraterritorial; that is, they are exempt from the jurisdiction of local law enforcement. While not necessarily considered the sovereign territory of the represented state (as is often incorrectly depicted in films and television), diplomatic missions nevertheless enjoy a special status which preclude local law enforcement officials from entering without the consent of the controlling state.

This status, afforded by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, means that embassies are sometimes used by individual seeking to escape from the host country. In April 2012, for example, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng was granted asylum in the US Embassy in Beijing, sparking a diplomatic row between the Chinese and US governments. In 2010, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri sought refuge in the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC, claiming he had been kidnapped from Iran by covert US forces. Eventually he was returned to Iran.

Assange’s case follows in this tradition. While he faces criminal charges in Sweden, Assange maintains that those charges are politically motivated, resulting from his decision to leak classified US documents. Assange believes that if he is deported to Sweden, he will ultimately be departed to the United States, where he could ultimately face the death penalty on charges arising from the Wikileaks case. British officials have refused to permit Assange transit under Ecuadoran diplomatic cover, effectively confining him to the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

Even without violating the Vienna Convention, Britain has several options. Under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1987, the government of the United Kingdom could revoke the Ecuadoran Embassy’s diplomatic status, potentially permitting police to enter the premises and arrest Assange. The British government, however, would likely not want to undertake this dramatic course of action. The Act was originally passed in response to the 1984 Libyan Embassy crisis, when a British police officer was shot and killed by a bullet fired from inside the Libyan Embassy in London.

A far more likely course of action, however, is that the British government will continue to maintain officers outside the Ecuadoran Embassy, patiently waiting for Assange to come out. Diplomatic immunity does not extent to Assange outside of the Ecuadoran Embassy, so ironically he remains free only so long as he stays inside the Embassy itself. And in case you’re wondering, that can be a long time. Cardinal József Mindszenty sought political asylum in the US Embassy in Budapest following the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. The Soviet-backed Hungarian government refused to permit him to leave the country. As a result, he lived in the US Embassy in Budapest from 1956 until 1971, when he was permitted to leave the country for exile in Austria. Whether or not the Assange case will stretch out that long remains to be seen.

What do you think? Should the government of Ecuador have granted Assange asylum? Should the United Kingdom maintain a wait-and-see approach to the case? Or is more dramatic action called for? And if the United Kingdom entered the embassy without Ecuador’s permission, how would that decision affect other embassies and diplomatic staff around the world?

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