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Assange tests British diplomatic principle


Ecuadorian Embassy

Julian Assange now sits securely in a small room inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London. He is safe, as Cardinal József Mindszenty was safe for many years inside the US Embassy in Communist-ruled Hungary. This is a benefit of the internationally-agreed Vienna Convention on sovereign immunity of diplomatic premises. The irony is exquisite. 

He draws on the rich and frequently resorted to Latin American tradition of using secure diplomatic immunity to protect the lives of one another's dissidents or deposed political leaders.

Such embassy safe havens and agreed safe conducts are not just theoretical concepts in Latin America. They have saved many lives and avoided the savagery and mutual embarrassment of reprisal trials in the oft-repeated cycle of coups and counter-coups.

They provide a face-saving and humane way for all concerned to deal with the consequences of violent and unpredictable political transitions. If any part of the world has reason to cherish the ideal of diplomatic immunity and inviolability by the host government of sovereign embassy premises, it is Latin America.

Assange chose well with Ecuador. Paradoxically, it is small and unimportant enough to be able to stand up to the US in ways that would be more difficult for larger Latin American nations such as Argentina or Brazil. There is a less complex and opaque web of economic interconnections. Commercial sanctions exercised through US corporations would be more easily exposed and denounced.

If clumsy pressures were applied on Ecuador, a wave of Latin American solidarity against Yanqui bullying could be relied on. Ecuador is not in regionally doubtful odour like leftist Venezuela, Cuba or Bolivia. It is a decent little middle-of-the-road country. 

The choice now before Britain is stark: to give Assange safe conduct to Ecuador or to let him become another highly visible prisoner of conscience — another Cardinal Mindszenty — in London. 

The British government has no option of storming the Embassy or cutting off its electricity or water. As Geoffrey Robertson argued on ABC Radio on Friday, once it violated the principle of immunity of diplomatic premises, Britain would be at the mercy of such actions against its many thousands of diplomatically protected people and their families in many parts of the world.

Britain has so much more to lose here. It would be grossly irresponsible to violate the Ecuadorian Embassy's diplomatic immunity. 

Yet Britain and Sweden will not negotiate any compromise with Assange now. The would lose too much face.

The wisest course for Britain would be to make the best of a bad job: to give Assange safe conduct to Ecuador as soon as possible. The longer he stays in the Embassy, from where he will be free to write, communicate, and broadcast in audio and video, the more harm and embarrassment he can cause to the Anglo-American national security interests he is challenging. 

To be confined to the Embassy as a prisoner of conscience would make a wonderful pulpit for Assange. The media drama of television journalists entering a guarded embassy to hear his views would not fade quickly. London is a hub of world media networks which could not resist following the story — as this weekend has proved. Bad look for Britain, Sweden and by extension the US in an election year for Obama.

Far more sensible, then, to give Assange a safe conduct to Ecuador, under warnings that if he tries to leave Ecuador, including on an Ecuadorian passport, he will face British arrest and extradition to the UK for the crime of violating his bail conditions in going to the Ecuadorian Embassy. Most countries would honour such a request.

Effectively, Assange will have exchanged the small prison of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the much larger prison of Ecuador itself. He will find it harder to maintain an international following and a viable Wikileaks system from remote Ecuador. There would not be a large and prestigious foreign correspondents' media corps in Ecuador to broadcast and amplify his views and Wikileaks scoops to the world.

If I were advising the British Government, I would say, give him his safe conduct to Ecuador, and then wait for the dust to settle. As it eventually will.

Meanwhile I would advise Assange, once he reaches Ecuador, to learn good Spanish as quickly as he can, and immerse himself intellectually in Ibero-American history and culture. For the foreseeable future, he will effectively live as a political refugee from the Anglosphere, which will not forgive him for showing the world the truth of the its duplicity and the crimes it committed in Iraq. 

What he did with Wikileaks was right and admirable. But he must pay for it with exile in Ecuador, possibly for many years. This is the way of the world we live in. 

Assange — who reminds me more and more of the many Irish rebels exiled to Australia, if they were lucky enough not to be hanged by Britain — has chosen the best available option. Now, he must look forward.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is is a retired Australian diplomat, having held the positions of Ambassador to Poland and Cambodia.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Julian Assange, Ecuador, diplomatic protection, Vienna Convention, Geoffrey Robertson



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Existing comments

Hopefully Assange will look forward to a time when Australia has a government of integrity that protects its own citizens...after Gillard and Abbott .

Vacy Vlazna | 20 August 2012  

Cardinal Mindzenty did not have two charges of rape levelled against him. ASsange is an opportunist who respects no boundaries - he would have published your private home papers without batting an eyelid if he thought it was to his advantage. Let justice be done and let him face the charges. Or if he wants to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy for the rest of his life, so be it. But he is a egotist, opportunist and very good at his controlling games, leading many to believe he is a 'victim'. AS for moral codes - there could be no greater difference than than between Mindzenty and Assange. Please do not insult the memory of those who suffered for their faith under the terror of Communism by suggesting there is.

Skye | 20 August 2012  

Yes. Sensible and well said. The elephant is not in the room, of course - that is, the sexual harrassment charges. It's very easy to claim sexual harrassment - a lovely weapon against anyone at all, as we Australians have good reason to understand in the wake of the charges made in recent months against our former Speaker.(Those particular charges have begun to smell rather badly as the months and the revelatiions have rolled by, but this hasn't stopped the Opposition from trying something similar against PM Gillard with regard to her resignation from Slater and Gordon all those years ago. Not SH to be sure, but the principle is the same - Smear.) Assange may or may not be guilty of harrassment. If guilty, shame on him, but he has already paid and paid, and will keep on paying for the rest of his life, guilty or not. You are right to brush it aside. In any case, he doesn't have to be a saint any more than you or I do. You so rightly focus on the vital fact - he has facilitated the revelation of some nasty truths about our allies, and, by extension, about ourselves. This is what he is being punished for. And if we continue to allow it, and say nothing, shame on us all. I hope someone in Whitehall, and someone in Washington, and even Canberra, is smearing Vegemite on their toast, and reading your article 'as we speak'.

Kate Ahearne | 20 August 2012  

Tony, Your days in Cambodia have served you well. What a world we live in! US, UK and Australia all supported Pol Pot with the Khmer seat in the UN during the auto genocide years. Now the UN and US have demanded and paid the $77Million + for the expensive legal prosecutors and defense lawyers to conduct the Khmer Rouge Trials that seem to have no end. They are making public what is already public in the Documentary Office on Sihanouk Boulevard. Mike Parer Australian Business Volunteer in Cambodia for 11 years

Michael Parer | 20 August 2012  

I don't doubt that Assange and his lawyers would have thought through very carefully the implications of seeking refuge with Ecuador. I agree that the best option for Britain is to allow him safe passage to that country. I am puzzled that Australia seems to be very much in the background in this whole scenario - Assange is an Australian citizen and should expect more from his country. Maybe Big Brother America is doing a bit of wrist-burning.

Pam | 20 August 2012  

A super article. Please send it to the governments of England and Sweden.

Robin Wileman | 20 August 2012  

I believe the charges of rape are a beat up with an ulterior agenda, and contrary to Skye believing that he has published to his advantage, I believe that publishing the truth is often not to ones advantage in this world. Assange has revealed truths that have been inconvenient and also convenient to many countries. Surely publishing the truth should be respected by thinking people. I will pose the proposition - know the truth and the truth will make one free, or live in ignorance and not know the truth! Surely Julian Assange has done the truth and the world a service, and I also endorse the first respondants comment that Australia should protect its own citizens.

John Whitehead | 20 August 2012  

What a pity this is being fought out during the term of the most humane and sensible and popular US President since JFK. He too is a prisoner of the hawks.

Frank | 20 August 2012  

There is no way anyone can confine a political refugee to any country. That is tosh frankly. He has the entirety of South America supporting his actions against the US and British bullies. The very notion that he can be extradited without charge for anything at all and bailed in England based on that nothing is ridiculous and Britain should be ashamed of herself.

Marilyn | 20 August 2012  

Skye, Assange has not been charged with rape. We know from diplomatic cables released that he was set up.

Marilyn | 20 August 2012  

To suggest Julian Assange hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in England is similar to Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty who took refuge in the USA Embassy in communist Hungary is laughable.Cardinal Mindszenty opposed comunism and fascism, he suffered, torture and persecution by the communist regime because he stood for Church freedom. To make Julian Assange a hero is ridiculous. He is charged with raping 2 women in Sweden. If he is innocent he would not be afraid to go to Sweden. Sadly, at times people idolize so-called famous individuals and do not care if they have harmed vulnerable young people.

Ron Cini | 20 August 2012  

Thanks Tony Kevin for your thoughts. I would have found it more helpful had you commented on the fact that the course you propose for UK would have it ignoring its obligation under its extradition treaty with Sweden and the likely repercussions of such action were it emulated whenever it suited a country.

Paul | 20 August 2012  

What is also chilling is the lack of trust many of us have in the judicial systems of the UK and the US.

Jorie Ryan | 20 August 2012  

In a radio interview on ABC Newsradio this morning, Senator Bob Carr put paid to this nonsense of the USA having trumped up allegations made against Assange in Sweeden. As he noted, the USA has an extradition treaty with the UK. If the USA wanted to extradite Assange, why would they not apply directly to the UK instead of going through Sweeden? I also heard Assange's speech. In it he said that it was time to put an end for the need of people to whisper to each other out of fear. Of course, Assange did not apply that same confidentiality to anybody that he deemed was in a position of power. Then there was no such thing as private communications of any sort. Julian had the right to hear all and report all. The double standard is breath taking!

John Ryan | 20 August 2012  

Ron Cini: Julian Assange is NOT charged with rape, or anything else! Why do you, like so many other people fall for the lies that are being told to discredit this man? What he DID do was uncover the shocking truths about the US military, and the banal conversations of highly-paid diplomats. If he'd uncovered Iraqi military having ruthless target practice on American or British families he'd be invited to tea at the White House. What you call "rape" was, in fact, unprotected sex with two women who he was staying with, who knew he "slept around", and who didn't bother to provide their own condoms - as responsible women who believe in safe sex would have done.

Kerry Bergin | 20 August 2012  

Ron, Assange has not been charged with anything at all.

Marilyn | 20 August 2012  

So Assange is above the law? He does not get to face his accusers? Why? Because some people like him and are 'assured' that he is innocent? Given me a break. This is so naive. It is also insulting to women who are in a similar position. It is not the law which matters here but the popularity of the person.

Skye | 21 August 2012  

Great article in the SMH by Peter Hartcher on Ecuador's repressive government. Here is the link. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/hypocrisy-ends-heros-freedom-to-preach-20120820-24ijx.html#ixzz248AobYap

John Ryan | 21 August 2012  

Ho-hum. Once again the same old right-wing comments are pulled out to support the same old ideology, regardless of the facts.
Sorry for sounding biased towards the left, but I honestly believe leftists are more objective - at least they have more the money, power and imperialism at heart.

AURELIUS | 21 August 2012  

Great article Tony - equator certainly seems like the most sensible option. Think the US and UK gobs should also be conscious that any extreme response will prompt riots the likes of which we have never seen and likely prompt Anonymous into full steam ahead with Project Mayhem's TYLER - which threatens to dwarf the impact of Wikileaks ! That is if we can believe their words ! Interesting time to be alive !!!

Bright Garlick | 24 August 2012  

Apologies for the misspelled words - damned iPod. Should have been Ecuador and govs instead of equator and gobs ! Gotta watch those autofillers !

Bright Garlick | 24 August 2012  

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