Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, currently holed up at the
Ecuadorean Embassy in London under so-called "diplomatic
asylum," had better get used to embassy meals, according to
international law expert Timothy Nelson of Skadden, Arps, Slate,
Meagher & Flom. Nelson made a study of the Vienna Convention on
Diplomatic Relations as well as international jurisprudence on
diplomatic immunity in his representation of a former Sri Lankan
general who was sued for war crimes in U.S. district court while
serving as a diplomat in Manhattan. Nelson's take on the Assange
situation: International law and diplomatic convention do not
compel Britain to guarantee Assange safe passage out of the
embassy and onto a plane bound for Ecuador, but nor does Britain
have a legal right to violate the Ecuadorean Embassy and
forcibly remove Assange. Assange, in other words, is pinned at
the embassy for the foreseeable future, unless one side or the
other decides to take an enormous risk.
Assange, of course, isn't the first notorious character to
seek refuge at a foreign embassy. In his case, the goal was to
avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces possible sex crime
charges; Assange and his supporters also assert that he fears
Sweden will, in turn, hand him over to the United States to
answer for his alleged disclosure of state secrets. But he faces
no more uncertain a future than, say, former Panamanian dictator
Manuel Noriega, who hid at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City in
1989; or Erich Honecker, the last leader of East Germany, who
took refuge in the Chilean Embassy in Moscow after the Berlin
Wall came down; or Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who fled to the
U.S. Embassy in Budapest during the Hungar i an uprising of 1956.
According to Nelson, the outcome for these three should be
instructive for Assange. None was immediately granted a safe
passage out of the country where his embassy haven was located.
Noriega was flushed out by U.S. Marines blaring rock and roll
music. Honeker was stuck in Moscow as the Soviet Union collapsed
and his sponsor, Mikhail Gorbachev, lost power, but after 17
months at the Chilean Embassy was finally permitted to depart
for Chile (by way of Germany, which dropped charges against
him). Mindszenty ended up living out his life at the U.S.
Embassy in Hungary, spending almost 15 years inside its walls
while police waited outside to arrest him.
Host nations, Nelson said, have no obligation to provide
safe passage to recipients of diplomatic asylum as a result of
the International Court of Justice's consideration of the case
of Viktor Haya de la Torre, a Peruvian activist who was granted
asylum by Colombia's embassy in Lima after a failed coup attempt
in 1949. The Peruvian government refused to permit Haya de la
Torre to leave Peru, so Colombia submitted the dispute to the
world court. In a series of rulings in 1950, the ICJ ruled that
Peru did not have to grant Haya de la Torre safe conduct and
that diplomatic immunity should be granted only under urgent
The law of international diplomacy, codified in the Vienna
Convention a decade after the Haya de la Torre rulings, puts
severe restrictions on Assange's options. "He doesn't hold too
many cards," Nelson said. "If he steps outside, he's likely to
But Britain's options are also limited, in Nelson's view.
The most prominent case involving a host nation's invasion of an
embassy stemmed from the Iranian government's seizure of U.S.
hostages in 1979. In 1980, the International Court of Justice
ruled that Iran had violated its diplomatic obligations. That
didn't do the United States government much good in its attempts
to rescue the hostages in Iran, but Britain is more mindful of
its standing in the international community than Iran was.
Nelson said that outside of negotiations with Ecuador, the
British government could exercise the extreme option of
declaring Ecuadorean Embassy officials to be persona non grata
and forcing them to leave the country. (Unlike Assange, they'd
be granted safe passage.) Britain could conceivably empty the
Ecuadorean Embassy, leaving only Assange behind, along with his microwave and treadmill.
But Britain's best alternative, Nelson said, could be simply
to wait things out. Ultimately, he noted, diplomatic
negotiations are always the preferred course in situations like
(Reporting by Alison Frankel)
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