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The Ecuadoran Embassy Imbroglio and Tragic Historical Precedents

Does the U.K. government dare risk tarnishing its international image by raiding the Embassy of another sovereign nation? It’s a far-fetched notion, but the British seem determined at all costs to apprehend WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning on allegations of sexual assault. Fearing that he would be extradited from Sweden to the U.S., which might seek to try Assange for leaking confidential government information to the public, the man behind WikiLeaks simply walked into the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and requested diplomatic asylum. After long deliberations, Quito agreed to comply with Assange’s request, which in turn has caused a diplomatic firestorm and led British officials to embark on a high stakes gamble.

In a serious escalation, the Cameron government told Ecuador in a letter that “you need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy. We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr Assange's presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.”

After news broke of the threat, police were sent to the Ecuadoran Embassy in an apparent effort to further intimidate Assange and the Rafael Correa government in Quito. If that was the intention, however, the move only served to inflame the matter further. Indeed, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño rejected “in the most energetic terms the explicit threat of the official British communication.” In a rhetorical flourish, Patiño added for good measure that “we are not a British colony.”

The Legal Back and Forth

There’s some doubt whether the obscure British 1987 law could actually trump long-standing protections enshrined in the Vienna Convention which safeguard diplomatic immunity for embassies all over the world. Legal experts argue that diplomatic missions have long been considered sovereign territory, and the British threat should therefore be considered extraordinary and without precedent. The Ecuadoran National Assembly agreed, and recently voted to condemn Britain’s moves as an attack on the United Nations Charter as well as the Vienna Convention.

Jennifer Robinson, Julian Assange’s legal adviser, remarked that “it would be illegal as a matter of international law to enter an embassy. They are inviolable. And unless and until they withdraw that status, the British government cannot enter the embassy…If the U.K. government were to revoke that status, it would be a watershed in international law.”

Perhaps, the Cameron government realized that it had gone too far. Antony Brenton, a former UK ambassador to Russia, remarked that invading the Ecuadoran Embassy would “make the world a very different place” as diplomats all over the globe could in turn be vulnerable to punitive action exerted by host governments. Caught in the midst of a diplomatic maelstrom, the Cameron government has toned down the rhetoric and threats, at least for now.

Yet, by merely hinting that it would resort to force and “go rogue” in an effort to apprehend Assange, Britain has demonstrated its contempt for international law and diplomacy. What is more, the Cameron government’s attitude is disturbing in that it harks back to some other violent and egregious incidents from past history. Take, for example, the Guatemalan military’s raid on the Spanish Embassy in February, 1980, an episode which cost the lives of many peasant farmers.

Dark Days of Military Repression

During the early 1980s, the small Central American nation of Guatemala was engulfed in horrific violence. Determined to hold back social progress, the armed forces under General Romeo Lucas García and associated death squads carried out a scorched earth policy targeting all those calling for agrarian justice in the countryside. Hoping to raise the international profile of their struggle, 34 Indians entered the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, occupied the premises and announced that they would hold a press conference.

If the peasants, however, thought their actions would elude the authorities they were tragically mistaken. Rather than negotiate with the Indians, García decided to use force and, in flagrant disregard for international norms, sent in the police. The security forces surrounded the Embassy itself and hurled incendiary devices into the building, apparently igniting Molotov cocktails which the protesters had brought inside.

This in turn caused an explosion and caught the Indians in a deadly blaze. The police, however, refused to open the door or let firemen inside. In all, thirty nine people were burned alive including Vicente Menchú, the father of Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú. The only survivor was taken out of hospital a couple of days after the conflagration and shot, though it’s unclear by whom. The massacre at the Spanish Embassy destroyed the Guatemalan government’s standing, and demonstrated to the world that the military would stop at nothing to combat its internal enemies.

It seems somehow doubtful that the British government by contrast would violate the territorial sovereignty of another nation, let alone cause destruction and mayhem within the Ecuadoran Embassy. Whatever its flaws, the Cameron government is a far cry from the Lucas García regime and its death squad allies of the early 1980s. Nevertheless, by simply calling international law into question, Britain seems to be riding a slippery slope. Just how far is London willing to go in its efforts to get its hands on Julian Assange? Hopefully, the authorities will come to their senses and the rule of law can prevail.

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