Julian Assange, hailed by some as the foremost champion of access to information in the digital age, and condemned by others as an irresponsible rogue, is not the most lovable of characters — a flawed hero if there has ever been one.
He is also the ultimate publicity seeker. This reputation was enhanced by the 10-minute speech he gave last Sunday from the balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy in London. He spoke just a few feet away from the British policemen who have cordoned off the building ever since he sought refuge in it, refusing to be extradited to Sweden where a prosecutor wants to question him on accusations made by two women.
Yet, even the best PR agency could not have concocted his latest feat. Tomorrow the ministers of foreign affairs of the Americas will meet at the white marble headquarters building of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., to address the possibility of the Ecuadorean embassy being stormed by those very policemen to get hold of Assange.
This is no figment of the imagination of Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino. It was raised in a letter from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office warning Ecuador that according to the Diplomatic and Consular Powers Act of 1987, the U.K. reserved the right to withdraw the diplomatic status of the embassy if it “ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post.”
Well, what about the Vienna Conventions, ratified by both Ecuador and the U.K., and the inviolability of diplomatic premises? What purpose is served by such conventions if they can be ignored at the whim of the government of the day?
In one fell swoop, Foreign Secretary William Hague upped the ante. Someone on his staff should have told Hague that the institutions of political and diplomatic asylum are sacrosanct in Latin America. Messing with them is the ultimate “no-no.” Given the region’s history of military coups, countercoups and revolutions, seeking asylum in foreign embassies became the coin of the realm. Even the worst dictators dare not interfere with it. Much of the legal doctrine on the right of asylum has been developed by Latin American jurists.
To have the foreign ministers of the Americas (it is safe to say that Hillary Clinton will not attend) debate in Washington the steps to be taken to protect the immunity of the Ecuadorean embassy in London is unprecedented. Even more noteworthy is that 23 member states voted in favour of this meeting and only three against it (the U.S., Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago).
As Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno, a businessman in a conservative government, put it, “This is a matter that goes beyond this particular case, which embassies need in order to function and which is established in international law.” His words were echoed by OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza.
As often happens, the U.S. State Department stated a fact without a point. Dismissing the need for such a meeting, a spokesperson said, “The United States is not party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum, and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law.” Does that mean the rest of the Americas should ignore it as well? On what basis?
Why is Ecuador offering diplomatic asylum to Assange?
Truth is, the case against him by two women in Sweden (whose laws on these matters are so stringent that it is said men should get permission in writing before having sex) is highly convoluted, having first been dropped and then resurrected; that Assange offered to testify at the Swedish embassy in London, to no avail; that his lawyer asked for guarantees that, were he to go to Sweden, he would not be extradited to the United States, again to no avail.
Thus, you don’t have to agree with Assange to think he is getting a raw deal. The possibility of him ending up on death row in some U.S. prison for his WikiLeaks revelations is real. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, whatever his motives, is standing up for what many consider to be a good cause. Latin America is standing behind Correa on the principle of diplomatic immunity. And British diplomacy, whose professionalism and savoir faire is (was?) legendary, has managed to antagonize much of the western hemisphere in a single demarche.
Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University. He is the author with Andrew Cooper of Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization.