Ecuador’s Dispute with the United Kingdom and Sweden over Julian Assange: The Inviolability of Ecuador’s Embassy in London

OAS Meeting, 8/24/12

As noted in a prior post, on August 24, 2012, the Organization of American States (OAS) held a full-day Meeting of Consultation of Foreign Ministers at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It was called at the request of the government of Ecuador to discuss certain issues in its dispute with the United Kingdom (and Sweden) regarding Julian Assange.[1] The central issue was the “inviolability” of Ecuador’s Embassy in London or its not being subjected to violation or invasion by U.K. officials.[2]

All of the states represented at the meeting, including observers representing the U.K. and Sweden, agreed that such inviolability has been a long-established practice and principle of international law, as expressed in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which 187 of the 193 U.N. members are parties. Its Article 22 states:

  • “1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
  • 2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.
  • 3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.”

Mention was also made at the meeting to the strong endorsement of this principle of international law by the International Court of Justice [3] and the U.N. Security Council.[4]

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino

The Foreign Minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patino, introduced the draft resolution that reiterated this principle and called for a conclusion that the U.K. had threatened to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and thus violated this principle. The draft resolution also would have the meeting endorse Ecuador’s granting of asylum to Assange.

U.K. Permanent Observer to OAS, Philip Barton

Toward the end of the meeting, the U.K.’s observer, Philip Barton, responded to Ecuador’s charges. He stressed the U.K.’s “absolute commitment to the principles of the Vienna Convention” and to its “always act[ing] in full compliance with [its] provisions.” He also stated that “at no time has the UK government made any threat against the Embassy of Ecuador.”

On the other hand, Barton implied, there obviously could be situations where the host country (or receiving state) will need to enter the diplomatic premises of other countries. This is alluded to in the obligations imposed on the sending State (here, Ecuador) in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention. That Article states, in part:

  • “1.Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State. . . .
  • 3. The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State.”

Barton added, “The rights of diplomatic missions conferred by the Vienna Convention comes with responsibilities. Article 41 of the Vienna Convention sets out the obligations of diplomatic missions to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State [here, the U.K.]. And these include the duty not to impede the due legal process of that State.” Ecuador, however, according to the U.K. observer, had improperly failed to respect U.K. laws and regulations and impeded the due process and legal obligations of the U.K. to extradite Assange to Sweden by the Embassy’s providing refuge to Assange, who was a “fugitive from justice” and thereby denying “the women who have made serious allegations against him the right to have their own voices heard.”

These concerns by the U.K. were echoed by the representatives of Canada, Panama and St. Lucia.

This Vienna Convention and its parallel Vienna Convention on Consular Relations were mentioned in the preamble of the U.K.’s 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, one of whose stated purposes was to “give certain [of their]provisions . . . the force of law in the [U.K.].”

Presumably the concerns expressed in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention were behind this U.K. statute, which was referenced in its August 15th communication to Ecuador and which in section 1(3) gives the government the power to withdraw recognition from diplomatic premises and thereby permit police to enter and arrest people on the premises. That section states, in part:

  • “In no case is land to be regarded as a state’s diplomatic or consular premises for the purposes of any enactment or rule of law unless it has been so accepted or the secretary of state has given that state consent under this section in relation to it; and if —
  • (a) a state ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post; or
  •  (b) the secretary of state withdraws his acceptance or consent in relation to land, ii thereupon ceases to be diplomatic or consular premises for the purposes of all enactments and rules of law.”

However, the U.K. Act of 1987 goes on to state in section 1(4), “The secretary of state shall only give or withdraw consent or withdraw acceptance if he is satisfied that to do so is permissible under international law,” while section 1(5) states that in deciding whether to withdraw consent, the minister “shall have regard to all material considerations, and in particular, but without prejudice to the generality of this subsection —

  • (a) to the safety of the public;
  • (b) to national security; and
  • (c) to town and country planning.”

These U.K. statutory considerations or limitations were highlighted at the OAS meeting by the representative of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a former British colony and a self-proclaimed “proud” member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. He said these provisions should bar the U.K. from withdrawing its consent to the presence of the Ecuadorian embassy and thereby permitting entry of British police because there could be no threat by Assange to the U.K. public safety in light of his having been free on bail in the country for a long period of time, because there is no basis for alleging he is a threat to U.K. national security and because there was no issue of U.K. town and country planning. A similar opinion on the non-applicability of this statute to the current situation was expressed in the press by an English attorney.

These provisions of the Vienna Convention and the U.K. statute were the legal framework for the discussion at the OAS meeting as to whether the U.K. in its August 15th letter to Ecuador or otherwise had threatened the inviolability of the Ecuadorian Embassy over its providing refuge to Assange. As mentioned above, Ecuador strongly asserted that there had been such a threat while the U.K. strongly disagreed with support from the U.S., Canada and Panama. The purpose of the meeting, however, was not to make findings of fact and conclusions of law on this and other issues.

Instead, at the conclusion of the meeting, the OAS member states unanimously adopted the following resolution:

  • “1. To reiterate the full validity of the principles and standards that govern diplomatic relations among states, especially those that concern full respect for the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions and consular offices, as recognized in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
  • 2. To reaffirm that those principles and standards constitute fundamental rules for ensuring the peaceful coexistence of all the countries that comprise the international community.
  • 3. To reiterate the full validity of the principles enshrined in international law, such as respect for sovereignty, faithful compliance with international treaties, peaceful settlement of disputes, peaceful coexistence among states, and rejection of the threat or use of force to settle disputes.
  • 4. To reject any attempt that might put at risk the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions, to reiterate the obligation / of all states not to invoke provisions of their domestic law to justify noncompliance with their international obligations, and, in this context, to express its solidarity and support for the Government of the Republic of Ecuador.
  • 5.To urge the Governments of Ecuador and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to continue to engage in dialogue in order to settle their current differences in accordance with international law, taking into account the statements made recently by authorities of both governments.
  • 6. To entrust the Permanent Council [of the OAS]with the due follow-up of this matter.”

In so doing, the meeting refused to adopt other parts of Ecuador’s draft resolution that mentioned and quoted the August 15th U.K. communication and that stated that there had been a threat by the U.K. on the inviolability of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.[5]

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa

On August 25th (the day after the OAS meeting), Ecuador’s government announced it had received “a communication from the British Foreign Office which said that there was no threat to enter the embassy.” In addition, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said in his weekly media address on Saturday, “We consider this unfortunate incident over, after a grave diplomatic error by the British in which they said they would enter our embassy.”

In fact, before, and at, the OAS meeting the U.K. had been reiterating that it had not and was not threatening the inviolability of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Ecuador’s sudden reversal on this issue suggests that all along it intentionally had exaggerated the U.K. August 15th communication in order to make a big splash in the international arena. Now I imagine some of the other Latin American foreign ministries will believe they were hoodwinked by Ecuador into agreeing to the extraordinary OAS meeting and will be more skeptical of any future Ecuadorian cries of alarm.


[1] I watched and listened to most of the live streaming video of this meeting, which is now archived on the OAS website. A press release and articles about the meeting are available in the OAS, the New York Times and the Guardian. The photographs of the meeting in this post are from the OAS website. Under Article 61 of the OAS Charter, such meetings of the foreign ministers are “to be held in order to consider problems of an urgent nature and of common interest to the American States,” and this was only the 27th such meeting in the 64-year history of the OAS.

[2] Also discussed at the meeting was Ecuador’s grant of asylum to Assange, a subject which will be addressed in a subsequent post.

[3] U.S.A. v. Iran, ICJ Reports 1980 3 (I.C.J. May 24, 1980), http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/64/6291.pdf.

[4]  U.N. Sec. Council Res. 457 (Dec. 4, 1979) (with respect to the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy, the Council reaffirms “the solemn obligation of all States parties to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations . . . to respect the inviolability of diplomatic personnel and the premises of their missions”), http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/370/75/IMG/NR037075.pdf?OpenElement; UN Security Council strongly condemns attacks against British Embassy in Tehran, (Nov. 30, 2011), http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90777/7661653.html (Council “condemned in the strongest terms the [Iranian] attacks against [U.K.’s] embassy in Tehran, . . . which resulted in intrusions into diplomatic and consular premises causing serious damage;” the Council emphasized “the fundamental principle of the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises, and the obligations on host governments, including under the [two Vienna Conventions mentioned here], to take all appropriate steps to protect diplomatic and consular premises against any intrusion or damage”).

[5] The meeting also refused to adopt Ecuador’s draft resolution’s endorsement of Ecuador’s grant of asylum to Assange.

Ecuador’s Dispute with the United Kingdom and Sweden over Julian Assange: Background

Assange @                      Ecuadorian Embassy
Ecuadorian Embassy, London

On August 16, 2012, the Government of Ecuador granted the petition for asylum submitted by Julian Assange, an Australian national temporarily residing at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, United Kingdom.[1]

Assange, of course, is the individual behind WikiLeaks, the international, online, self-described not-for-profit organization publishing submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks and whistleblowers. In 2010 it obtained many secret U.S. documents and released them to the world through various media outlets.[2]  No U.S. criminal charges have been publicly filed against Assange with respect to the releases of these U.S. government documents, but he fears that such charges secretly have been filed or will be filed and that such charges may seek life imprisonment or the death penalty.[3]

In August 2010 Assange was visiting Sweden, where he allegedly had certain sexual encounters with two Swedish women, who subsequently filed some kind of complaint about these encounters with Swedish authorities. As a result, these authorities have been investigating whether Assange committed rape or some other kind of sexual assault on these women. To pursue that investigation the authorities obtained an European Arrest Warrant to extradite Assange to Sweden for questioning.

In December 2010 Assange, then in Britain, learned about the European Arrest Warrant and voluntarily went to a British police station to advise them of his whereabouts. He immediately was arrested and taken into custody. After a short stay in prison, Assange was freed on bail of  £340,000 (nearly $540,000), of which £ 200,000 was deposited with the court, plus his being confined to  a specific site in Norfolk, England, fitted with an electronic tag and ordered to report to police daily.

Assange then went to the U.K. courts to challenge his extradition to Sweden.  In February 2011, however, a U.K. court upheld the Swedish request, which was affirmed nine months later (November) by the U.K.’s High Court and in May 2012 by the U.K.’s Supreme Court (5 to 2). In addition, that Supreme Court on June 14th denied Assange’s request for a rehearing and ordered that he be extradited to Sweden by July 7th.

Thereafter (on June 19th) Assange somehow violated the terms of his bail and managed secretly to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he filed his claim for asylum.

In the roughly two months between June 19th and Ecuador’s August 16th’s granting of asylum, the governments of Ecuador and the U.K. apparently had private diplomatic exchanges and public sparring over this situation. Especially significant in light of later developments were the following incidents:

  • On August 15th, the U.K. Embassy in Quito apparently delivered a letter to Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that said: “You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the Embassy.” The letter purportedly also stated, “We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations] and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.”  The latter added, “”We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr. Assange’s presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.”
  • The Ecuadorian government immediately and publicly disclosed some of the contents of the August 15th letter and characterized the statements just quoted as “threats against the sovereignty of the Ecuadorean embassy” and as “a clear breach of international law and the protocols set out in the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations].”
  • In response, the U.K. Foreign Office stated, “The UK has a legal obligation to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offences and we remain determined to fulfill this obligation.” Therefore, “it is only right that we give Ecuador the full picture. Throughout this process we have drawn the Ecuadorians’ attention to relevant provisions of our law, whether, for example, the extensive human rights safeguards in our extradition procedures, or the legal status of diplomatic premises in the UK.” Moreover, the U.K. stated its continued commitment “to reaching a mutually acceptable solution.”
OAS Building, Washington, D.C.

On August 24th, at Ecuador’s request, the Organization of American States (OAS) held an extraordinary Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, to discuss the dispute. This meeting concluded with a unanimous resolution focused on the inviolability of diplomatic missions under international law. A subsequent post will review this OAS meeting and the legal issue of the status of diplomatic missions in host countries.

Another subsequent post will examine the merits of the Assange asylum claim.

In the meantime, Assange continues to be a full-time “guest” at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.


[1] This post is drawn from caches of articles about all of these events in the New York Times and the Guardian.

[2] By happenstance, as reported in a prior post, some of the U.S. government documents released by WikiLeaks were cables from the then U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, Heather Hodges, to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. asserting that there were multiple reports of illegal activities by Ecuador’s national police chief and that Ecuador’s President Correa might use these activities to manipulate the police chief. After these cables became public, President Correa called these statements “unacceptable, malicious and imprudent” and expelled Hodges. In retaliation, the U.S. expelled the Ecuadorian Ambassador to the U.S., Luis Gallagos. Both Hodges and Gallagos, in my opinion, are honorable professional diplomats, and neither one did anything wrong.

[3] A U.S. national and member of the U.S. Armed Forces, Bradley Manning, allegedly participated in obtaining these documents for WikiLeaks, and he currently is in U.S. custody facing criminal charges for that alleged conduct. Discussion of the many issues relating to his case is beyond the scope of this post.