I missed Julian Assange’s statement on the day (catching up on work after being out) but who would have thought we would see a situation where Ecuador would be seen to be upholding a foreign national’s press freedoms (never mind what it does at home) and the Vienna Convention, while Britain would be making diplomatic threats?
I realize the UK has sent Ecuador a letter citing its own law, giving it authority to ‘take action’ against the embassy. Here is some of that letter:
As we have previously set out, we must meet our legal obligations under the European Arrest Warrant Framework Decision and the Extradition Act 2003, to arrest Mr Assange and extradite him to Sweden. We remain committed to working with you amicably to resolve this matter. But we must be absolutely clear this means that should we receive a request for safe passage for Mr Assange, after granting asylum, this would be refused, in line with our legal obligations …
We have to reiterate that we consider continued use of diplomatic premises in this way, to be incompatible with the VCDR (Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations) and not sustainable, and that we have already made clear to you the serious implications for our diplomatic relations.
You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the UK—the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act—which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the Embassy.
We very much hope not to get this point, but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr Assange’s presence on your premises, this route is open to us.
My memory of the conventions, which the UK has ratified, is that the embassy remains foreign soil. There are provisions under various criminal acts which allow prosecution of diplomatic and consular staff. The Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 could see the embassy’s consular status revoked, something which the letter hints at.
This is where the UK has to think twice. If the UK is willing to do revoke the status of the mission, then its desire to be seen as a sovereign nation that respects public international law will be damaged. The DCPA was created for very different purposes: it was developed in the wake of the murder of a police officer, Yvonne Fletcher, during the Libyan Embassy siege, on April 17, 1984, and the attempted abduction of Umaru Dikko on July 5, 1984. The Act was subject to huge scrunity, but it was developed to give the UK the right to go in to the Embassy in extraordinary circumstances, such as the pursuit of suspected murderers if the Fletcher situation recurred, or, as Baroness Young told the House of Lords in 1987, in cases of terrorism.
This time, the UK wishes to invoke the Act over the breaching of bail conditions—a very different matter altogether.
In the world of diplomacy, usually veiled with political-speak and niceties, such strongly worded correspondence is rightly construed as a threat, never mind what William Hague says in denying that the letter hints at the UK storming the mission. It also gives the state greater powers in determining how to remove inviolability before it takes action against the premises—but it could also be quickly challenged by Ecuador and it would be up to the courts to decide.
Where things get muddied is that Assange is an Australian, and he doesn’t fear prosecution from his own country—usually the way through which someone claims asylum. He fears it from another country altogether, and most likely argues that his own country has failed to protect him. Assange has good grounds to believe that, since it has come from the Prime Minister herself:
It’s within living memory for a lot of people how the international community frowned on Iran during the 1979 revolution and the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran. While one could argue there was no host nation at that point—the Shah had left town, so to speak—it sealed in many people’s memories just how sacrosanct diplomatic missions’ soil is. In Britain, Fletcher’s murder in 1984 again pointed to the inviolability of foreign missions’ soil—and just how extraordinary the circumstances have to be for DCPA provisions over revocation to come into force.
It’s not hard to see why—if you look at my Facebook feed—the UK is getting criticized on its handling of the affair. It appears to be doing others’ bidding, using an extraordinary piece of legislation to pursue someone who had breached the bail conditions of another European country. It’s not the first time one law has been bent to suit unrelated purposes, and it won’t be the last—but in this case, a lot more people are watching the UK’s conduct.