The recent developments regarding the possibility of UK storming the Ecuador embassy in London bring up some important questions regarding international law and politics.
This is my take as someone who is not an expert on International Law:
My guess is that the UK WON’T storm the embassy. They will abide by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and preserve the integrity of diplomatic missions, because the political costs and breaches opened by storming an embassy in London are enormous. Why?
It’s much easier and less tricky not to issue a safe conduct allowing Assange to leave the premises of the embassy and be transferred to the airport and be flown to Ecuador. The situation created will assure (strong surveillance assumed) that if he steps out (meaning being in British soil) he will be arrested at once. His only option will be to face British authorities or “live forever locked in the tower” of the Ecuadorian embassy.
Carl Gardner, at Head of Legal Blog implies that it is more legally viable to have the UK FCO taking necessary measures to cut diplomatic relations with Ecuador and expelling the ambassador from the country, and further withdrawing the diplomatic immunity that the embassy premises currently have. Therefore, they would close the embassy AND THEN, when it ceases to be so, they’d storm it and arrest Assange, if he’s still inside, of course. This is an valid ad absurdum claim, since there’s no point for Assange to stay in the building if it doesn’t grant him any protection. This way, UK wouldn’t have to arm wrestle its Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 with its obligations to the Vienna Convention, and it would be easier to take action without creating a dangerous precedent, so far unseen in Western countries. As expected, should the UK opt for this course, all Ecuadorian diplomatic staff would have a safe conduct to leave the country, but not Assange, who would be arrested while leaving the embassy or (again ad absurdum) inside the building when it loses its diplomatic status.
I do agree with him, even though I don’t think that this is the expected outcome, and would add a few considerations.
Being stuck at the embassy over the long term is not a good nor a acceptable outcome neither for Assange or for Ecuador. At some point someone will have to back off, and all of the involved know it. I believe that the British rationale is that they have time and geography on their side: they just have to deny safe passage and wait until he gives up and turns himself in. On the other hand, Assange’s rationale is that he wants to buy time for three things, in case he can’t manage to get a safe passage to his asylum (which is a feasible horizon for him):
1) improving his defence in case he has to undergo trial;
2) trying to increase the “costs” for the UK and US to take serious action against him;
3) which I think is the most important, he wants to make his case even more mediatic, getting stronger support from the public opinion to leverage the support of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Indignados (generally anti-Establishment movements) in his favour, once again increasing the costs for the UK and the US (and Sweden) to take strong action against him.
Along with this: wouldn’t it be easier for the Ecuadorian diplomatic staff to have a diplomatic vehicle (also inviolable as per the Vienna Convention) to drive Assange outside of the country through the ferry to Ireland, France, Belgium or the Netherlands? From there, they could either arrange for a safe passage in one of these countries to have Assange flown to Quito, or if necessary, continue driving outside the European Union border and eventually reach a country that would allow it? Or would the British find a way to stop the car from going on the ferry, either by severing the ferry connection, or sustaining any reason not to allow that specific car to board the ferry?
Anyone have a different interpretation?
* I’d like to thank Wagner Artur O. Cabral, Ricardo Moraleida, Luiz Fernando Plastino Andrade and Thomaz Napoleão for their direct and indirect contribution to the ideas present on this post, which were triggered by a facebook discussion first put up early today by Wagner Artur.