Why Britain is playing with fire in the Assange case

By Simon Davies

The UK government’s threat to revoke diplomatic immunity of the Ecuadorian embassy and storm the building to arrest Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will have sent shudders down the spine of anyone who has ever worked in the world’s trouble spots.

This extraordinary situation does have a privacy element, certainly in terms of territorial privacy and the right to be let alone in protected zones. The more important aspects go to the heart of human rights, international relations and the fragile diplomatic balance between countries that agree on  little else other than the mutual protection of their own people.

I have – for well founded security reasons – held diplomatic immunity in several troubled countries, and at times of particular strife I’ve taken refuge in at least two embassies. At moments like those you just hope that the host government will play by the rules.

The idea that a nation will invoke some little-known home-grown regulation to override the Vienna Convention is an act that civilised countries commonly agree must never be permitted

Were a precedent to be created no diplomat, politician, human rights worker, dissident or asylum seeker anywhere in the world would be safe.

The hypocrisy of Britain’s threat is astounding. Britain reacted with anger and hostility when in August 1967 Chinese Red Guards broke into its embassy compound in retaliation for the closure of Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong. British authorities then asserted the inviolability of its embassy and claimed a violation of international agreements. The UK seems to have forgotten those days.

Anyone working in a war zone or an area of conflict always has one eye on the exit road to make sure there’s a way to get to the nearest friendly embassy. My visits to such regions have thankfully been short term, but veterans tell me the option of last resort to flee to an embassy is always in the back of the mind.

The possibility of trumped up claims by officials of criminal offences is also anticipated. Traditionally, diplomatic staff make a judgment call on a case by case basis on such matters – a situation that the UK supports, mainly because the UK itself has made such judgment calls.

Yes, it is indeed the case that the Vienna Convention does not cover people accused of non-political crimes. Ecuador never for a moment said it was acting in the first instance to protect Assange from a non-political prosecution; it went to pains to explain that it had been seeking assurances that Assange would not be extradited to the US to face what would amount to political charges.

Had such guarantees been given it would have been highly unlikely that asylum would have been granted. As events transpired, the UK, Sweden and the US refused to give such an assurance. Now Britain must respect the rules that it so avidly supports when it needs to protect its own interests.