Here are my collected thoughts on Julian Assange and his exciting life and times.
My DIPLOMAT piece on Assange and diplomatic protocol, from 2017:
If someone runs into state B’s embassy to escape state A’s laws, s/he can sit there until s/he comes out. The embassy premises are inviolable, but once that person leaves the embassy that person is on state A’s territory, and subject to state A’s law.
This explains why many superficially ingenious ideas for getting Mr Assange safely out of the UK under Ecuador’s diplomatic protection don’t work. Give him political asylum! Make him an Ecuador diplomat so he has diplomatic immunity! Make him a UN diplomat so he has immunity! Transport him in the Ecuador ambassador’s car to the airport and up a ramp into a waiting Ecuador jet: the car and plane are Ecuador state property and so have diplomatic immunity – the Brits can’t touch him!
All piffle. World diplomacy would grind to a stop if anyone with a grievance could get into an embassy and claim ‘asylum’. No state would accept an embassy from a country that becomes known for granting diplomatic privileges to fugitives or troublemakers to help them escape the local jurisdiction.
Embassies are places where legitimate inter-state business is done, not sanctuaries for any suspected criminal who gets through the door. Under diplomatic practice established down the ages the UK government decides who gets diplomatic privileges and immunities on its territory. It won’t accept that Mr Assange is an Ecuador or UN diplomat to help him escape the UK and EU legal system.
This whole dreary saga is a case-study in diplomatic rights and immunities and the cautious diplomacy thereof.
Back in 1984 Mrs Thatcher was aghast when a Libyan diplomat shot out of the window of the Libyan embassy in central London and murdered a British police woman, Yvonne Fletcher. The Prime Minister was even more aghast to lean that the revolting diplomats who had done the killing were immune from prosecution under international law, and had to be escorted to the airport to fly away free as birds.
Yet as the Assange case shows, it’s worth upholding these time-honoured diplomatic norms. You never know when they might come in handy.
Once J Assange scuttled in to the Ecuador embassy, the Brits made a crass move in appearing openly to threaten Ecuador with removing the embassy building’s diplomatic immunity. That created a new layer of problem, namely Ecuador National Pride. This is what I wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2012:
In diplomatic negotiations possible good options fall into different categories that together can be called LEWD: what’s Legal, what’s Effective, what’s Wise, and what’s Deliverable in Practice. Smart diplomats wrack their brains to recommend to Ministers LEWD options.
In this case it looks as if there was a failure of technique. The speaking note handed to the Ecuadorians pointed explicitly to British options to act under the 1987 Act (ie the FCO ticked the Legal box) while noting in a slightly mournful way that HMG “very much hoped” not to have to use them (ticking, they thought, the Wise box). The aim was to bring these pesky Ecuadorians to their senses and thereby tick the Effective and Deliverable boxes too.
Needless to say, this plan collapsed on its first encounter with the enemy.
Precisely because the text had made the “threat” to remove the Embassy’s diplomatic status so directly, it allowed the Ecuadorians deliberately to limit their own room for manoeuvre by granting Assange asylum and by playing the noisy eternal anti-imperialist victim PR card. This in turn reduced HMG’s room for manoeuvre by bringing into play issues of national reputation on both sides.
Why would any country want to limit its own room for manoeuvre? Simples. It’s a key trick in diplomacy: if there is to be an eventual policy climbdown, it boosts the case for getting a bigger price for it.
As things have turned out, it looks as if the FCO should have studiously avoided giving Ecuador that option. The speaking note could have been drafted very differently, for example to include a list of a number of relevant legal instruments (including the Vienna Convention and the 1987 Act) in an annex.
The text of the note in a po-faced way then could say that as Ecuador already well knew, HMG had a number of legal options under international and UK law should, alas, Ecuador grant Mr Assange asylum, and invited Ecuador to scrutinize these instruments to draw its own conclusions.
This (a) would have cultivated a sense of indirect mystery rather than overt menace, and (b) dodged the unseemly outcome of the Foreign Secretary saying that “there is no threat here to storm the Embassy”, when most normal people would think exactly the opposite.
Anyway, that dim technique mistake duly made, the British government then parked police officers outside the Ecuador embassy and waited. Hey, if Ecuador wanted to host Assange in its London embassy for a few months or years, who might we be to meddle? It’s a free country!
After some seven years Ecuador finally lost patience with J Assange for all sorts of reasons, and gave permission for UK police officers to enter the embassy and haul him out. Out he was hauled.
Note that this is not (necessarily) the same as Ecuador ‘inviting the police in’ to arrest him.
Nor is it any breach of human rights or international law, as Assange’s lawyer has absurdly asserted:
“Ecuador has made these allegations to justify the unlawful and extraordinary act of letting police come inside an embassy.”
Extraordinary? Well, it’s unusual.
But unlawful? Not at all. It’s their embassy and their diplomatic immunity, and they can do what they like with it.
This is the absolutely core idea of diplomacy. An embassy is like a guest in a house. The guest must respect the host: not go rummaging around in drawers and closets or try on the host’s underclothes.
But likewise the host respects the guest: the guest is afforded privacy in his/her bedroom.
It’s striking that Ecuador’s President Moreno uses exactly this analogy:
“For six years and 10 months, the Ecuadorian people have protected the human rights of Mr. Assange and have provided for his everyday needs at the facilities of our Embassy in London.
You can’t arrive at a house that welcomes you warmly, that gives you food, and takes care of you, and start to denounce the owner of the house. We’ve removed the asylum for this spoiled brat and, fortunately, we’ve gotten rid of a thorn in our side.
From now on we’ll be more careful in giving asylum to people who are really worth it, and not miserable hackers whose only goal is to destabilize governments.”
One lives and learns.