A reader has sent me this fascinating email with many points of historical interest (reproduced with his permission) on the general subject of ‘diplomatic asylum’ (and the Assange case):
I’m a retired DS officer, who follows your website with interest. I enjoy what you say and how you say it, particularly the E. European/Russian material as I served in Budapest, Prague and Moscow .
I’ve read your Assange article plus the various links including the Diplomat article and Brian Barder’s contributions (even at this distance into retirement he remains admirably persistent in his arguments). This brought back memories from my time in South America and elsewhere.
I was Consul/Admin Officer in Santiago from 1980-84 and recall that the Embassy had experienced an asylum invasion by a small group of Chileans (similar to the Pretoria event you describe) a year or two before my arrival. There were numerous diplomatic asylum cases throughout Santiago at the time of the military coup in 1973, mainly involving Latin American missions, but these had become a rarity by the late 1970s. The reasons behind the decision to claim asylum at the British Embassy were not clear but I recall some speculation that the group may have been encouraged by one of the UK-based Chile human rights groups.
However, the incident was handled carefully in much the same way as your Pretoria event. The invaders were not of much interest to the Chilean authorities but I think it took a few days to persuade all concerned to leave the mission. Thereafter, however, security was beefed up and we always took care to vet potential asylum seekers at the main entrance to the outer compound. From time to time I had to go outside to interview individuals who lacked an obvious explanation for wishing to visit the Embassy.
I recall only one diplomatic asylum case during my time in Chile. In (I think) late 1982/early 1983, several young Chileans with links to an active left-wing group sought asylum at the Office/Residence of the Papal Nuncio. Some were on a government wanted list but managed with ease to gain access to the security-lite ‘Nunciatura’, which was located in the street behind our Embassy. I had a good view from my office of the back garden where the group spent much of their time sitting around smoking and enjoying the poor old Nuncio’s hospitality.
The Nuncio, who was also Dean of the diplomatic corps, quickly became disenchanted with his uninvited guests. To his relief, however, the Vatican managed to negotiate safe conduct for the group and, after a lengthy stay, they were flown out of Chile. I think they went to Mexico and then on to Cuba where they disappeared from sight. I imagine, however, that in common with other Chilean exiles they returned home after 1989 when democratic rule was re-established in Chile.
In your Diplomat article you refer to Cardinal Mindszenty. My first overseas posting was to Budapest in 1969 and I recall seeing him in the US mission when he would take a constitutional around an internal courtyard. He was by then in declining health but regularly gave Mass at the Embassy to which there was, I believe, a standing invitation for friendly diplomats. I know some diplomats had their children christened by him. A colleague tried to persuade me to have my first son christened by the Cardinal (a step too far for a Scot brought up in the presbyterian tradition). I remember too that the Hungarian security services kept a car permanently stationed outside the Embassy ready to grab him if he ever stepped outside the building.
Eventually, Kadar (the PM) was persuaded by members of his government to allow the Cardinal to leave in 1971 for exile in Vienna. He died there in 1975 but his remains were re-buried at the Basilica in Estergom in 1991, where he had been Archbishop.
Mindszenty had the unenviable record of imprisonment by the short-lived Bela Kun communist government regime in 1919, then by the neo-Nazis in 1944; and finally he was given a life sentence for treason on a range of trumped-up charges by the communists in 1948. 20th century Europe reflected in one life.
You’ll recall that Imre Nagy, Hungarian PM at the time of the revolution, also sought sanctuary in 1956 at the Yugoslav Embassy. Despite being given a written guarantee of safe conduct by the Soviet-installed Janos Kadar, the Soviets arrested him on leaving the Embassy and he was tried (sic), convicted of treason and executed. Villainous behaviour by Khrushchev who wanted to send a clear message to other ‘socialist’ leaders. Nagy was ‘rehabilitated’ and his remains given a proper re-burial in 1989.
Sorry, a bit long-winded but hope it’s of some interest. I don’t foresee a safe-conduct deal for Assange but then he’s no Mindszenty (or Nagy).
I wonder who dreamt up the the diplomatic accreditation idea. Kite-flying by someone perhaps? I doubt whether the Ecuadorians would give this serious consideration. Even if they did, HMG would be well within its rights to reject it. I’m sure there are any number of precedents for refusing accreditation (below Head of Mission level) and I imagine a message to that effect has already been conveyed to the Embassy. In any case, let’s hope his departure from these shores is not too far off.
This sort of letter makes me wonder if my next book should be The Definitive Compendium of Amazing Diplomatic Stories. As for my first one, Speechwriting for Leaders, it looks set for release before Christmas in eBook form. Watch this space.