Stand-off over Assange could develop into a major diplomatic incident
The rift between Britain and Ecuador over the WikiLeaks founder presents both countries with something of a legal minefield
THE STAND-OFF between Britain and Ecuador over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has raised the prospect of a major diplomatic incident if British police force an entry into the Ecuadorean embassy building.
The former computer hacker is wanted in Sweden, where he has been accused of rape and sexual assault. However, Ecuador said yesterday it would assist Assange, who has been taking refuge in the embassy for two months, to settle in its country.
Ecuadorean officials say any decision to raid the London embassy would be an outrageous breach of international law. British officials insist that if they did so, it would be within British law.
Under international law, security forces are not allowed to enter an embassy without the permission of the ambassador – even though the embassy remains the territory of the host nation.
The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified the “rule of inviolability”, which all nations observe because their own diplomatic missions are otherwise at risk.
However, the UK foreign office told Ecuador it had the power to revoke the embassy’s diplomatic status under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987. This law was enacted in the wake of the Libyan embassy crisis three years before, when PC Yvonne Fletcher, on duty outside the embassy in London, was shot dead from inside the building. Such a step might set a dangerous precedent by encouraging other governments to justify entering embassies to arrest dissidents seeking diplomatic asylum.
If Ecuador challenged a revocation, ministers would have to argue at the British high court that the mission, by harbouring Assange, had itself fallen foul of international law. The government used the power in 1988 to deal with squatters in the Cambodian embassy.
The 1961 convention stresses that missions must respect local laws and not interfere in the host nation’s internal affairs. The Metropolitan police says it has the power and right to arrest Assange for breach of bail if he steps outside the embassy. They have also delivered a letter to the embassy demanding that Assange surrender himself.
A legal source at the Ecuador embassy claimed yesterday that the 1987 Act was established to stop a major threat such as terrorism or a nuclear threat.“The law . . . would be invoked if the public are under threat. In this case, no one could argue that Assange’s presence in this embassy is a threat to the British public.”