Thursday, 16 August 2012

Hard cases make bad law

It seems that William Hague is threatening the Ecuadoran ambassador with action under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 as a result of his government's decision to treat Julian Assange as a political refugee.

One can question the grounds for granting asylum: Wikipedia describes it as "an ancient juridical notion, under which a person persecuted for political opinions or religious beliefs in his or her own country may be protected by another sovereign authority, a foreign country, or church sanctuaries". Assange is not under threat in his native country of Australia. He is also facing criminal charges, not political ones, in a country (Sweden) which has rather more civic freedom than the U.K.

However, that does not justify taking the drastic step of declaring that the Ecuadoran embassy has been misused to the degree that its diplomatic status can be withdrawn. If the 1987 Act is invoked, UK embassies and consulates, hitherto protected by the Vienna Convention (United Nations pdf here), will be considered fair game by tinpot dictatorships and less-than-friendly governments round the world.

The 1987 was enacted by a Conservative government against the background of the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher by automatic fire from the Libyan People's Bureau. It was obviously intolerable that the "diplomatic bag" should be used to smuggle weapons into the country, but the FO was given more sweeping powers than were necessary. (One wonders whether the Act was necessary in the case of Libya anyway, since Gadaffi had abolished traditional embassies in favour of people's bureaux whose protection by the Vienna Convention must have been a grey area.)

As to Assange, the government should accept the situation. Far better to play the long game. The longer that Assange remains in the embassy, the longer he is likely to be an embarrassment to Ecuador. He is clearly not as ascetic as that other long-term political refugee, Cardinal Mindszenty. Assange's news value will eventually die down and a face-saving formula can be found for his surrender to the authorities.

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