On Thursday, I posted a story about how to see the Equator in Ecuador. When I tweeted about it, I was shocked to see that Ecuador was trending. Looking deeper into why, I found out that Ecuador gave citizenship to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and applied to the UK for diplomatic status in an effort to get him out of the country.
People seem to be curious as to whether this is a tactic that will work. Assange is, after all, an international fugitive, wanted both by the United States, and by Sweden (on sexual assault charges, not anything related to WikiLeaks and sharing of classified information). He has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since August 2012 after receiving asylum.
So what is diplomatic status? How can a wanted fugitive hide in an embassy for more than five years? What are Ecuador’s options if they want to take him out of the UK, and what are Britain’s options in response?
Modern diplomatic immunity rules were codified in 1961 by the Vienna Convention on International Relations. Under international law, diplomats are not subject to most local laws (there are some exceptions) and cannot be prosecuted by their host countries. Furthermore, embassies and consulates are considered to be sovereign territory of the country they serve, not of the host country. In addition, diplomatic vehicles and aircraft are also protected.
Not anyone can be named a diplomat. For most, a nation applies to the host country for status for their diplomats to be stationed there. For ambassadors, there is usually a ceremony, and a proclamation whereby the host country formally accepts the ambassador. Nations can deny the requests, or even strip diplomatic status from accepted diplomats and kick them out of the country, or ask the nation of origin of a diplomat to waive immunity to allow a host nation to prosecute an accepted diplomat.
Diplomats are issued special passports that also allow them to travel without being accosted or stopped, or their belongings searched. That way they can move about the world – specifically from their host nation to their home nation – freely and in possession of whatever secrets they carry. It would be an awesome way to travel, without security checkpoints or anything of the sort.
Got all that? Ok, back to Julian Assange and his quest to escape authorities and head to Ecuador. Ecuador applied for diplomatic status for him, which would have allowed him to leave the embassy in London without being immediately arrested. The UK, not at all surprisingly, denied the request.
So how will Julian Assange get to Ecuador if he and they are determined to do so? Ecuador can put him into a diplomatic vehicle in the embassy and drive him straight to a diplomatic aircraft. If he never touches British soil, he won’t be stopped. But couldn’t they have just done that years ago? Yes, so one must figure the diplomatic nightmare of transporting a wanted criminal is not something Ecuador desires, or at least they didn’t when he was not a citizen.
Could Britain stop the car anyway and just pull him out of the car? Again, yes, but the diplomatic crisis of that, which is basically an act of war, is probably more than they would desire.
So now we wait and see. Will Ecuador try to sneak Julian Assange out of the UK? Will that lead to a diplomatic break with the US, Sweden, and other allies?
I hope this was an informative and interesting tangent to travel for all of you!