Thursday, August 16, 2012

Diplomacy - Even Unto Its Innermost Parts

Even as I write this, media sources are rife with speculation that the United Kingdom, keen to lay its hands on Julian Assange, who is currently hiding at the Embassy of Ecuador in Central London, where he formally made a claim for political asylum, will revoke the diplomatic status of the embassy, which in turn will allow it to enter the building and arrest Assange.

I've been monitoring the commentary in mainstream media, and have not surprisingly found most UK commentators missing the wood for the trees in this issue. So let me try to spell out why, if the UK government was to carry through with this purported plan, we'd be going down a very dangerous route in international relations.

(Caveat lector: I am neither a government nor public service official myself, nor do I represent any governmental entity. Having said that, I grew up in a diplomatic atmosphere, as my father served in multiple embassies around the world in a diplomatic capacity. The issues of diplomatic immunity, therefore, have very personal resonance for me, especially as there were a few postings that my father undertook which were in incredibly hostile countries, both for himself and his immediate family)

To put it very mildly, Assange is a non-issue in this entire palaver. Regardless of the merits or demerits of the case against him, he is a bit player in a wider political game. Conspiracy theorists, anti-governmentalists and supporters of his cause may (rather, will) claim that the rape charges that have been filed against him in Sweden are politically motivated and intended to silence a man who has become a political liability for major Western governments around the world through his Wikileaks campaign. 

This is not to absolve him of the rape charges. But, by walking into the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012, Assange was relying on an internationally established protocol - that the embassy of a foreign, sovereign nation is deemed inviolate, and is also deemed to be above the laws of the host country. 

This protocol is clearly spelt out in the Vienna Convention of 1961, which establishes international norms for consular and diplomatic relations between countries. Without going too much into the intricacies of legality, as a UN document that has been ratified by over 185 signatory nations (including the United Kingdom) the document has significant weight. 

One of the key provisions of the Convention is highlighted in Article 22, which states that "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission". In the current context, therefore, the only way that UK personnel could enter the embassy would be with the express consent of the Ambassador of Ecuador.

The UK Foreign Office indicated yesterday that provisions exist for it under UK law to suspend the diplomatic immunity granted to the Embassy by virtue of a national law. Again, without going into the specifics of national law superceding international convention, this could possibly stand muster, though I wouldn't bet on an international arbitrator accepting this argument. This is specifically because the UK has itself in the past relied on and taken advantage of the immunity granted to its personnel in embassies overseas. In addition, the UK has, like all other nations that are party to the convention, relied on the privileges granted to its diplomatic staff by virtue of the convention, and taken great umbrage if these have not been met. For example, in 2011, the UK took strong exception to the failure of the Iranian government to provide adequate protection to the UK Embassy in Teheran and not prevent it from being stormed by protesters. To then turn around less than a year later and revoke the diplomatic immunity granted to another country's embassy raises significant concerns of UK exceptionalism.

Furthermore, the UK government could not possibly expect that its exceptionalism, were it to proceed as feared, would go unchallenged, either in international courts, in diplomatic fora, or worse still, through a more pernicious loss of standing in the global arena. That is the problem with adopting an exceptionalist policy - one needs the might and international clout to carry through, and the UK has been in a state of gentle international decline, not just militarily, but also economically. As such, its actions, whilst arguably carried out against a country of "little significance", would be of great significance for its relations with other countries. While I doubt that any third state would raise explicit concerns, you can be pretty sure that most embassies would not waste time in sending circulars back to their capitals with a clear risk and threat analysis for themselves in light of unilateral action by the UK against an embassy it was hosting.

The question, then, to ask is why exactly the UK is willing to act in contravention to all established international norms to chase down one man. Even if Assange were to be granted asylum by Ecuador, he would eventually have to leave the embassy in order to leave the country, thereby leaving him open to arrest and extradition (the only exception to this is if Ecuador, in a political masterstroke, were to appoint Assange as UN Ambassador, which would grant him diplomatic immunity globally, and not require the assent of the UK government.)

That, of course, is a question that only the UK Foreign Office can answer.