WikiLeaks and the Boy who cried Wolf

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Let’s consider for a moment the events now occurring in London and the media coverage of Julian Assange’s exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The Union of South American Nations has come out in support of Ecuador’s stance on Assange, which has been harbouring the WikiLeaks founder in their London embassy since June.  The British Government’s threats to storm the embassy and snatch Assange is classic British bullying and could well create problems for Britain in its foreign relations with countries beyond Ecuador.  Under the terms of the 1961 United Nations Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, embassies remain under the jurisdiction of the nation they represent, meaning that British police have no authority within Ecuador’s embassy. The Convention is the cornerstone of international relations, and has been signed by more than 200 countries.

UK Foreign Minister William Hague’s recent statement that “the United Kingdom does not recognise the principle of diplomatic asylum” and threat to use the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act to remove the diplomatic status of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, thereby allowing the police to enter the building and extract Mr Assange has the potential to open a whole can of worms.  Britain, as with most countries in the world, does not accept the principal of diplomatic immunity if it goes against international law – in this case, if a wanted criminal were to claim asylum in the nearest embassy. Conversely, Ecuador and a number of its South American neighbours, do recognise the right to diplomatic immunity, putting it at odds with much of the Western world.

The British behaviour is best explained by their current status as pandering to their US counterparts.  What we are seeing is the first truly high profile challenge to the steady erosion of international norms and human rights that has been accelerating since 9/11 and the war on (drugs/terror/the economy/the environment) was begun at the turn of the century.  Established norms of the right to free speech and press are under attack as well as the diplomatic sovereignty of states.

The interesting aspect for me is the parallels which this situation has with that of the blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who took refuge in a US embassy in Beijing in May this year.  Although Chen left the Embassy just 6 days later, the US’ actions in granting Chen asylum was seen as an affront to Chinese sovereignty on their own soil, for which Beijing demanded an apology.   These cases raise questions about the relevance of territorial boundaries and state sovereignty and are vital issues in terms of the way states observe international law and international relations.

Perhaps Assange and Ecuador will try to have his case heard by the International Court of Justice to get the status of diplomatic asylum universally recognised and established as a basic international law norm.  Despite what Ecuador, the UK, Sweden and the US decide to do, the decisions will reverberate throughout international law and norms and this case sets to test the strength of international norms and could set an unwelcome precedent which would invite a political and perhaps even violent response from other nations.  The UK has painted itself into a corner as it can now either raid the embassy and risk international retribution, or lose face by letting Assange leave the embassy and the country.  Personally, I feel that if Assange doesn’t capitulate and face his accusers in Sweden, the best thing the UK could currently do is let Assange slip out of the country under the cover of darkness and live out his days in a dark Ecuadorian bar in Quito while the rest of the world focuses on the Paralympics. Mojitos anyone?

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