One can but wonder what the family of murdered Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher must have been thinking as the UK government threatened to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and arrest Australian citizen Julian Assange. Assange is wanted for breaching bail on an extradition order to go to Sweden to face questioning by a prosecutor over allegations of sexual misconduct in 2010.
In 1984, PC Fletcher was standing duty at a demonstration outside the Libyan Embassy in St James Square, when someone inside the embassy fired an automatic weapon at the crowd. 11 people were wounded and PC Fletcher was killed. Police surrounded the Libyan Embassy but did not enter, respecting the diplomatic status of the premises. After 11 days, all of the Libyan Embassy officials were given safe passage out of the UK.
Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Britain is a signatory, codified the centuries old rules protecting diplomatic missions. It provides that the premises of the mission shall be inviolable and agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission. Nobody was ever convicted of PC Fletcher's murder.
The public outcry over the murder of a police officer on British soil by an embassy official and the inability of the police to question, let alone charge anyone for the crime led to the passage in 1987 of the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act. It allows the UK to revoke the diplomatic status of an embassy on UK soil, which would then allow police to enter an embassy and arrest someone it suspected of involvement in a crime such as the cowardly murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher.
The UK has flagged in official correspondence that it is considering using this legislation for the first time in the 25 years since its passage, against the Ecuadorian mission, in order to ensure that Assange is sent to Sweden to answer questions about the overlap of two nights of consensual sex and a broken condom.
It is difficult to reconcile the reason for the legislation – ensuring a murderer of a British citizen never again gets safe conduct out of the country – with the fact that Assange continues to offer to meet the Swedish prosecutor in the Ecuadorian Embassy and answer any questions she has. The offer continues to be refused, as has been the case for two years now.
Much has been made of Assange being granted asylum by the Ecuadorian government. Essentially, it means he is physically trapped inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. A right to diplomatic asylum is not established universally in international law. The International Court of Justice has made it clear that in the absence of a treaty or customary rules to the contrary, a decision by a mission to grant asylum involves derogation from sovereignty of the receiving state.
In other words, the UK government is currently respecting diplomatic inviolability of embassy premises: ie, a building. And that is what is protecting Assange. But Ecuador granting asylum to Assange means nothing in the absence of an agreement between Ecuador and the UK to respect diplomatic asylum: ie, people.
Accordingly, unlike the circumstances in 1984, when the British government couldn't get the Libyan Embassy staff out of the country quickly enough, it seems that there will be no safe passage for Assange. If Assange so much as leans too far outside a window of the Ecuadorian Embassy, UK police will nab him and convey him to Sweden.
A true gift from Ecuador might be to make Assange a citizen, then an ambassador, and then maybe he might safely leave the UK for Ecuador. Better to be 'imprisoned' in a country. Meantime, Assange may be trapped inside an Ecuadorian building in London for quite a while.
Long stays in embassies by asylum recipients are not unusual. In 1989 Fang Lizhi, a Chinese astrophysicist and government critic took refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing in 1989, just as the Chinese government launched its brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. He stayed over a year, before being allowed to move to the US.
Possibly the longest example ever of a dissident taking diplomatic sanctuary was that of the Hungarian Catholic Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty who spent 15 years under the protection of the US Embassy in Budapest, from 1956 to 1971.
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