Tag Archives: Ecuador

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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Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The major news story this week was the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman appointed to the highest court in the United States. Politically, Sotomayor’s nomination was a brilliant move on the part of the Obama administration. While President Obama did not take advantage of the opportunity to appoint a liberal counter-weight to the conservative ideologues of Justice Antonin Scalia, the President did manage to force Republicans into a difficult spot. Republicans had been gearing up for a protracted fight against any Obama nomination as a way to mobilize their softening political base and increase fundraising in anticipation of next year’s Congressional elections. But in nominating Sotomayor, Obama forces Republicans to balance their desire to mobilize their base against their need to expand the base of the party to include the country’s largest and fastest growing minority group.

In news from outside Washington DC last week:

1. The United States is still struggling to figure out how to deal with the challenges posed by North Korea’s increasingly belligerent policy stance. Over the past two weeks, North Korea has engaged in a nuclear warhead test (on Monday) and several missile test fire operations. While the United States has officially downplayed the situation, describing North Korea’s actions as “nothing out of the ordinary” and dismissing it as mere “posturing,” it has discussed the need for a tougher approach. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council seems unlikely to moved on fresh sanctions against the North Korean regime.

2. After a week of intense fighting, the Pakistani military has regained control of Mingora, the main town in the disputed Swat valley. The government of Pakistan has been fighting against Taliban militants, who have turned to terrorist  bombings in their fight against the Pakistani government. On Thursday, for example, four bombs exploded in Peshawar, a city in north-west Pakistan. Observers are speculating that the Pakistani government may turn its attention to the Waziristan region along the Afghanistan border once operations in the Swat valley are completed. But the ability of the Pakistani government to continue to exercise sovereignty over the border regions will depend on its ability to establish governmental institutions and expand the reach of the country’s central institutions into the border regions—something the central government has not been able to do so far.

3. Political tensions within the Palestinian Authority intensified on Sunday after forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (from the Palestinian Liberation Organization faction) raided a safe house belonging to Hamas, the other party in government. The clash–the bloodiest since the Abbas government revived peace talks with Israel in 2007, resulted in six deaths, including two high-ranking Hamas officials. The attack came just four days after Abbas met with President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. Obama encouraged Abbas to improve his efforts to fulfill his obligations under the road map for peace, including maintaining law and order in the West Bank. Observers believe this attack was part of that effort, intended to demonstrate to the United States that the Palestinian Authority is following through on its promises.

4. Fighting in the Niger River Delta region continued over the past week, as the government of Nigeria continued its attacks on militants in the region. The government is hoping to reopen oil wells in the Ogoniland region. But observers fear that the government’s increasingly militarized efforts to address the crisis may backfire. Groups in the Niger Delta region claim that they have received few benefits from the country’s oil wealth, suffering from severe environmental degradation and severe human rights violations resulting from oil production, but seeing little benefit from the industry. Militants in the region have already launched attacks against some oil production facilities, hoping to cut off production and increase the cost of operating. Activists in the United States have taken a different approach, attempting to sue in U.S. courts the multinational oil giant Royal Dutch Shell for their alleged involvement in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists in the region.

5. Oil prices reached a six-month high on Friday, trading at $66 per barrel. OPEC is projecting that oil should reach $70-$75 per barrel by the end of the year. While the fighting in the Niger Delta region certainly contributed to increasing prices, observers also believe that speculators are coming back into commodities markers, leading to price increases. In a move certainly linked to the higher prices, the government of Brazil announced that it would reopen its vast offshore oil fields to international bidders. Meanwhile, the oil giant Chevron is being sued in Ecuadorian courts, facing damage liabilities as high as $27 billion for alleged damage to the environment and human health caused by their operations in the country.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Most of the headlines this week has centered on the auto rescue package.  The most recent news is that the Treasury Department is working to put together a rescue package for Detroit automakers after Senate Republicans blocked the Congressional effort last week.  The Canadian government is offering $3.4 billion in aid to struggling car makers on the condition that the U.S. government extend assistance as well.  Foreign car manufacturers are that the U.S. government should extend aid to American manufacturers in order to prevent knock-on effects on their own businesses.

Here’s five other important stories you might have missed this week:

1.  The government of Ecuador announced it would not meet the $30.6 million payment on the country’s foreign debt, despite holding $5.65 billion in cash reserves.  Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s leftist president, said, “I gave the order not to pay the interest and to go into default.  We know very well who we are up against—real monsters.”    The international debt-forgiveness campaign Jubilee celebrated the decision, arguing that requiring countries to repay illegitimate debt forces them to cut social spending.  As a result of the default, the cost of barrowing money by the Ecuadorian government and businesses will likely increase.

2.  The situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate.  Once celebrated as a potential model for the rest of Africa to emulate, Zimbabwe’s social, political, and economic collapse continues.  The country currently faces an annual inflation rate of 231 million percent, and a cholera outbreak which has resulted in the deaths of more than 800 people this month now threatens to spread into other states in the region, forcing South Africa to declare a state of emergency and close the border.

3.  European leaders committed themselves to a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2020.  The announcement, intended to reduce the danger of global climate change, falls short of the 25-40 percent reductions required of developed countries according to scientific assessments.  However, the EU has already announced its intention to pursue bigger reductions if the United States and other developed countries come on board.

4.  Ireland confirmed it would move forward with a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after securing concessions from the European Union.  The Lisbon Treaty, which was defeated by Irish voters in June, moves European integration forward.  Ireland is the only country which required a popular referendum on the Treaty.  The text of the Treaty has been amended to assure that Ireland’s military neutrality would be guaranteed, and its abortion laws and national tax system would not be affected.

5.  The South Korean government announced its intention to expand cooperation with China and Japan in coordinating economic policy to address the spreading global financial crisis.   The three countries account for 75 percent of the region’s economy and two-thirds of its trade.  The deal would expand a currency swap agreement intended to stabilize the three countries’ currencies, and could lead to further coordination of economic policy.