Foreign Policy Blogs

A Diplomatic Twist in EU-Latin American Relations: Assange’s Legal Status in London


Today most OAS members will officially make a statement of support for Ecuador and its diplomatic rights under international law. Most Latin American nations support the concept of a country being able to maintain a secure embassy in the U.K. without British officials entering or taking actions in their embassy. In international law, an embassy property is considered sovereign territory, and is seen as a small part of a foreign country inside another state. Ecuador’s embassy is considered Ecuador in London, and to enter a foreign territory to arrest a foreign national to extradite them to a third state creates an issue that is best left to a court. To threaten to close an embassy in order to arrest one individual is also overly aggressive. Any actions by the U.K. to enter a foreign embassy without an invitation may be seen as inappropriate by the OAS, and illegal by many courts that enforce international law.

The ability to protect its citizens from the unreasonable application of justice is an important concept in international law. The sovereignty of an embassy is also important so that relations between nations can be conducted in a civil manner. Not more that a few months ago the Israeli embassy in Egypt was assaulted and documents were taken and burned, signalling to Israel that even if relations existed, that they would not be afforded the respect and ability to operate in Egypt as a diplomatic ally. While this assault was not done by the government itself, governments still have the legal obligation to protect foreign embassies in their territory. The assault and capture by Iranian militia of U.S. diplomatic officials after the fall of the Shah was seen as a massive violation of international law, as not only did Iranian militia invade U.S. sovereign territory in the form of their embassy in Teheran, but kept the officials as hostages. It is impossible to keep civil relations between states if threats against the messengers of foreign governments can be eliminated at the political whims of a government in power at the time. Those rules do not exist simply to keep open relations, but to help nationals of a state in the event that they have been falsely accused of a crime, perhaps a British citizen in China without the means to defend themselves in a legal system where they may not have proper rights to a fair trial. Ecuador’s position is that it does not believe the U.K. in extraditing Assange will respect his rights to be sent directly to Sweden for a trial. The belief by some is that Assange will end up in the U.S. facing charges for Wikileaks, and not for the sexual assault case in Sweden.

The question of legally enforceable diplomatic immunity is often given to official diplomats of a country. Ecuador has extended this to some degree to Assange, an Australian national who could not secure the same status from his own government. Two legal issues come into play here as well, as the UK and Sweden likely have an extradition treaty for criminal actions so that charges in Sweden can succeed by allowing the UK to arrest and deport the charged individual to the country where there criminal act took place. Diplomatic immunity also has its limits, as while diplomats of a foreign nation cannot be unreasonably charged for small crimes, mostly so a less than amicable government cannot intimidate them. If Criminal Codes are broken for larger offenses however, they can be charged and sentenced. Sexual assault in Sweden certainly falls into this category, and if an assumption of charges is assumed to be linked to punishing Assange for Wikileaks and not for the charges of sexual assault, than it is still best to show in a fair court system in Sweden that the charges are false and let Ecuador or other sympathetic nations support his cause for Wikileaks in an international forum.

The EU and U.K. have not had the best relations with Latin America over the last few months. Challenges over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands along with the Argentine expropriation of Repsol have placed many Latin American states in line against European interests in the region. Ecuador’s support for Assange may do more to embarrass U.K. officials than to actually help Assange if the U.K. enters the embassy or closes it down to make an arrest. In reality, with an Australian in Ecuadorian territory (in their embassy) facing charges in Sweden, it should be Sweden asking Ecuador for an extradition where Ecuador can help Assange with his case. If President Correa of Ecuador feels strongly about defending Assange, he should pay for his lawyers and support him against the charges in Sweden. The U.K. should simply facilitate Assange’s move to Ecuador’s embassy in Sweden as a simple and logical solution. The UK pushing to disrespect Ecuador’s sovereignty in the matter in order to enforce an extradition treaty does look like the U.K. or its allies are overly eager to get their hands on Assange, maybe not just for the criminal charges in Sweden. The support from the OAS is not so much support for Assange, but is a combined effort to show that all embassies need to have their sovereignty respected in all countries. It would be easier for the U.K. to extradite themselves from this political mess than to force Ecuador to extradite Assange, and if this was done it is likely the OAS would not support Assange simply escaping criminal charges in Sweden. It is really in the hands of the Swedish government to decide how to handle Assange, and they have the diplomatic connections to Ecuador they require to proceed with the case and pressure Ecuador to give over someone who is criminally charged with a serious offence in Sweden.



Richard Basas
Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration