Assange case ‘a threat’ to diplomatic immunity

The Foreign Office’s warning to the Ecuadorian government of a law that allows Britain to revoke the immunity of a diplomatic premises and arrest Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a direct threat to diplomatic immunity and sets a dangerous precedent, according to diplomats in London.

In an Embassy survey, 94 per cent of respondents said using or even threatening to use the law had the effect of eroding diplomatic immunity.

Speaking to the BBC, former UK Ambassador to Russia Sir Anthony Brenton said the “arbitrary” revocation of diplomatic immunity of a premises should be done with extreme caution as it risked undermining the diplomatic immunity of British diplomats working in difficult postings.

A large majority (88 per cent) were unaware that the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987 even existed but more than half of the respondents (56 per cent) claimed such a law could only be compatible with the Vienna Conventions in very exceptional circumstances when a mission was involved in serious undiplomatic activities, such as supporting terrorism against the host state.
More than two thirds of respondents (69 per cent) felt the case of Julian Assange did not therefore qualify since the Ecuadorian government was within its rights under international law to grant Mr Assange asylum.

For that reason, 50 per cent of the diplomats responding to the survey regarded the FCO’s reminder of the law to the Ecuadorian government as a tactical “blunder” or an “own goal” because their actions amounted to “bullying” said one diplomat or “empty threats” said another embassy worker, adding: “f one embassy worker or “bullying” according to another. But some (31 per cent) felt the UK was within its rights simply to state the facts and to outline the law to Ecuador or “to send a message that no-one is above the law,” said one diplomat.

It is difficult to ascertain how widespread similar laws are in other countries. In the Embassy survey, half of respondents said they did not have such a law in their country and that the Vienna Conventions “applied directly”. Six per cent claimed they had a similar law, while 44 per cent did not know whether their countries were able to revoke the immunity of a diplomatic premises.