The fallout from Ecuador’s decision to grant WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange political asylum has already begun, mere hours after the decision was announced by Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino, at a press conference in Quito.
In granting Assange political asylum to Ecuador, Patino noted: ‘The government of Ecuador, after a fair and objective assessment of the situation described by Mr Assange, according to their own words and arguments, endorsed the fears of the appellant, and assumes that there are indications that it may be presumed that there may be political persecution, or could occur such persecution if measures are not taken timely and necessary to avoid it’.
His detailed announcement also had stern words for Australia, which he said had failed to do what it could to protect a citizen from the very real threats against his life, while working as an activist in ‘communications’. This finding was essential to a formal case for asylum, but given the Gillard government’s unwillingness to talk back against threats of assassination, is hard to gainsay.
Foreign minister Bob Carr responded by saying that Assange had received more consular help than any Australian?–?which may or may not be true, but is irrelevant to the case of where the government stands on assassination threats against its nationals. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said it was out of Australia’s hands, conveniently ignoring the explicit barbs directed by Patino against our conduct.
Meanwhile in the UK, foreign secretary William Hague criticised the decision strongly in a statement made some hours after Ecuador’s announcement, rejecting the concept of diplomatic asylum out of hand, and rejecting Ecuador’s request that Assange be given ‘safe passage’ by which to leave the embassy and leave the UK.
However, Hague also withdrew any suggestion that the UK would use a 1987 act to rescind Ecuador’s embassy status, allowing police to enter the premises and arrest Assange. Later, he specifically stated that there would be no attempt to do this.
The proposal to rescind embassy status had been contained in an ‘aide-memoire’ documenting the negotiations between the two countries over the past months. Intended as confidential?–?by the UK at least?–?it was released by the Ecuadorian foreign ministry, with Patino then reminding the UK that Ecuador was not a colony.
The stunningly undiplomatic threat was greeted with universal condemnation in the UK press?–?even though Assange has few remaining allies there (though most papers continue to use WikiLeaks material)?–?and was explained by Assange’s lawyer Geoffrey Robertson as due to the fact that ‘all the good foreign-office lawyers were on holiday’.
However, even though the threat has been walked back, it has become an international incident of sorts, with the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting next week to consider the issue. Lacking the right-wing governments of North America, UNASUR may well produce a more unified response to the issue, supporting Ecuador.
The granting of asylum, with the absence of safe passage, means that Assange has to remain in the eight-room apartment embassy for at least the immediate future. His current lawyer, the Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzon, has indicated that the matter will be taken up with the International Court of Justice.
In the interim, UK police moved quickly to seal the embassy tightly, stationing officers in the foyer of the building (not part of the embassy proper), and at external windows, to prevent Assange being spirited into a diplomatic vehicle. Armed with heat-seeking equipment to ensure that Assange cannot be concealed within a crate labelled as a diplomatic bag, or similar, the operation is rumoured to be costing up to £50,000 a day.
The question as to how the Ecuadorians could get Assange out is being keenly debated in the press, and in WikiLeaks’ supporters circles, with the legalities of assigning him citizenship and a diplomatic role becoming a topic of discussion, a mere 48 hours after your correspondent raised it here.
The problem with credentialling Assange as a high-ranking Ecuadorian diplomat is that he would need to be accepted by the UK, which is unlikely on the face of it. Ordinarily, a diplomat made persona non grata is guaranteed safe passage, per the Vienna Convention, but what is the rule if they were never a diplomat in the first place? What if Assange were made an Ecuadorian diplomatic representative to a third country?–?Brazil?–?say, and was accepted by them? The Vienna Convention should then oblige the UK to give safe passage, per the convention, as far as I read it.
Thirdly, there is the option of making Assange an ambassador to the UN, or one of its numerous sub-bodies. Unconfirmed reports from sources close to WikiLeaks say that this plan has always been on the table, and was discussed with the Ecuadorian government long before Assange entered the embassy and requested asylum on June 20.
Not least among the ramifications of this extraordinary event has been the revelation that the UK makes no official recognition of ‘diplomatic asylum’, something unknown to many. Indeed, ‘diplomatic asylum’ is only supported by the laws of a minority of countries in the world (including most American states), and does not form a part of the Vienna Convention.
The reason that is surprising to many is obvious?–?the UK likes to support the diplomatic asylum bids of dissidents in other countries, and give the impression that it is willing to speak truth to power (as long as they queue at the US embassy and not the UK). For example, here’s William Hague, after blind dissident Chen Guangcheng evaded house arrest under Chinese law, and escaped to US protection in 2011:
British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced concern about Chen’s case, which he said had exposed ‘abuse of power’, and urged Beijing to guarantee the safety of Chen’s family. ‘We will now monitor the status of Chen’s family and associates and we look to the Chinese government to guarantee their rights, freedoms and personal safety,’ he said at a news conference in London to release the British foreign ministry’s annual human rights report, which mentions Chen’s case. ‘We remain concerned about the health of Chen’s wife and daughter and we will continue to work with other European Union countries to raise our concerns on this with the Chinese government,’ Hague said.
Not exactly ‘run, run Dith Pran’, but an implicit acceptance of diplomatic asylum. Had it not been the case, Hague’s statement would have been limited to urging Guangcheng to comply with the national law of a country with which the UK had diplomatic relations.
The UK and the Swedes will claim that Assange is using political asylum to evade criminal proceedings, and point to the latter’s clean record as a law-abiding state. But such assessments assume a neutral view of global power, something that neither left-wing governments, nor many people in South America, are likely to have.
Furthermore, though the Swedish government has called in the Ecuadorian ambassador to express its displeasure with the granting of asylum, it is a country that set the bar for assertive diplomatic morality. Indeed one of the most revered figures in South America is a Swede, Harald Edelstam, ‘the black pimpernel’, who was Stockholm’s ambassador to Chile during the Pinochet coup.
During that period, Edelstam risked his life?–?and violated any principle of diplomatic neutrality?–? and saved thousands of Chileans, and others from Pinochet’s thugs. Eventually, the whole Swedish embassy staff was engaged in a running fist-fight with Chilean paramilitary, before being booted out of the country.
The Swedes may well argue that Assange’s situation is nothing like those of the Chileans, but they can hardly object to a tradition of moral diplomatic action that they have done so much to foster. Indeed, Assange’s lawyer, Baltasar Garzon, is on the nominating committee for the annual prize given by the Edelstam Institute, for those who use ‘creativity and courage’ to improve human rights.
Finally, last Thursday afternoon, WikiLeaks announced that Assange would make a public address from ‘outside’ the Ecuadorian embassy at 2pm Sunday (11pm AEST)?–?which everyone got hot and sweaty about, assuming he would come down to the front steps and risk arrest.
It turned out to be from the embassy’s chi-chi Italianate first-floor balcony, overlooking Knightsbridge, which made the whole Latin American theme of the recent months pretty much complete.