Oliver Miles: Why asylum will not mean a free ride for Julian Assange


The British Government has undertaken to implement a court decision that Julian Assange should be deported to Sweden. When I heard that he had taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy, my reaction was that the British Government would have to insist on his being handed over, in the last resort being ready to break off relations. The alternative is to say to every criminal in London: "Just pay a small sum to some ambassador and you can have a free ride."

The Ecuadorean government yesterday announced it had granted Assange's claim for political asylum. But asylum there makes no odds when he is stuck here in London. He cannot move without facing arrest; the Ecuadoreans cannot give him diplomatic cover outside their embassy.

The Ecuadoreans say we have threatened them with the little-known Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, claiming it "would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy". This Act seems to originate in the outrage caused by the murder of Yvonne Fletcher in 1984 by shots fired from within the Libyan embassy. But the Foreign Secretary can only resort to the Act "if he is satisfied that to do so is permissible under international law". However, arresting Assange inside the embassy without Ecuadorean permission would be against international law. Like other states we accept the international rules because they are essential for the conduct of business between states. The British Government can of course break the rules, but at a price. If embassy premises were no longer guaranteed immunity, doing normal government business would be impossible. Britain has been a leader in establishing the rules and there seems no good reason why we should break them – since we have other, legal options. The classic case of embassy asylum was Cardinal Mindszenty, who fled from the Soviet invasion of Hungary by hunkering down in the US embassy – for 15 years. Eventually he got out of the country by mutual agreement. The British Government also has the option of doing nothing. Do Assange and the Ecuadoreans have the stomach for 15 years of co-habitation?

So, there is no hurry, and there may well be other factors of which we are ignorant. But I expect the outcome to be that the Ecuadoreans will hand over or be closed down.

Oliver Miles is a former British ambassador to Libya