It looks like the British government is going to consider storming the Ecuadorean embassy in London to arrest Julian Assange and extradite him to Sweden to face sexual assault
charges allegations. [Thomas Beagle points out he has not been charged, so I’ve amended this throughout. Thanks!]
Without getting into the validity of those allegations, or of the extradition process, I’d like to look at how the schedule of rights breaks down for Assange and the states in question, from weakest to strongest:
1. Julian Assange’s right to avoid extradition for an alleged crime on the grounds that he’s doing good things.
This is no sort of right at all, but it is nevertheless what many of his supporters have claimed.
2. Sweden’s right to request Assange’s extradition to face questioning.
This seems clear-cut, although again, many of his supporters have claimed it is not.
3. The UK’s right to undertake its own judicial process in deciding whether to extradite.
The UK, after an exhaustive process, has decided to extradite.
4. Assange’s right to seek political asylum.
Fearing that he could suffer the death penalty if, following extradition to Sweden, he is further extradited to the USA, Assange seems to have a right under Article 14 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights to seek political asylum. I think this is arguable, because the veracity of his claim to persecution is arguable, but anyway, he has done so.
5. Ecuador’s right to consider and grant asylum requests.
Ecuador has the same rights as any other state to consider and grant such requests, and it appears to have granted (or intends to grant) this one (reports vary).
6. Ecuador’s right to the integrity of its sovereign territory, including its embassies.
This is where I think it gets murky for the British government. They argue that provisions in the Consular Premises Act 1987 permit them to revoke consular or diplomatic status from an embassy if the premises have been misused. This article in the Gazette of the British Law Society suggests that it’s a bit more complicated than first seems. I am no sort of lawyer, but my read, in short, is that a diplomatic premise is inviolable under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (even in case of war or emergency), and that residual diplomatic status could continue for a period of time even after revocation (which would be a fairly major step in itself).
As I say, I’m no expert on such matters, but my view is that the chain of rights I have outlined here is pretty sound. I believe the correct position from a rights perspective is for the British government to concede Assange’s right to claim asylum, and Ecuador’s to grant it if it chooses, despite its misgivings. As terrible as the acts that may or may not have been committed by Julian Assange, it seems evident that he retains the right to seek asylum, that the Ecuadoreans retain the right to grant it, and that the UK is on, at best, shaky ground attempting to arrest Assange once succour has been granted by the Ecuadoreans. While respecting some of what Wikileaks has done, I do not much like Assange, nor do I have much tolerance for the legions of his supporters who have sought to absolve him of responsibility for his alleged sexual assault by recourse to character assassination, intimindation and vilification of his alleged victim.
But there are bigger things at stake here than a criminal, even a celebrity criminal, fleeing justice — how host countries respond to diplomatic gameplaying like this is one of them.