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Cut Diplomatic Ties? Hide Him In A Crate? How Might Assange Standoff End?

Aug 16, 2012
Originally published on August 17, 2012 12:27 pm

Now that Ecuador has said it will give WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum as he seeks to avoid being extradited from Great Britain to Sweden by hiding out in Ecuador's London embassy, news outlets are looking at the complicated legal issues involved in cases such as his.

Here are some things we've found fascinating in the coverage:

Can the U.K. revoke its recognition of the embassy, which would then give police the right to enter and arrest Assange?

Britain's 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act "does indeed give ministers a power to withdraw recognition from diplomatic premises," writes The Guardian.

But the U.K. would also have to comply with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and that requires Britain to help Ecuador obtain a place in London for its mission. So, legal blogger Carl Gardner writes in a post picked up by the Guardian, "it's not obvious [the Vienna Convention] allows the U.K. to just de-recognise the current premises without helping arrange something new."

Could he get into a vehicle with diplomatic plates and avoid arrest?

The BBC writes that "assuming Julian Assange evaded arrest outside the embassy, he could get into a diplomatic car. These vehicles enjoy protection in international law from 'search, requisition, attachment and execution.' That could lead to the curious legal position of the [police] having the power to stop the car — but no power to search it for Julian Assange. Even if he got away, at some point he would have to get out of it into an aircraft - at which point the risk of arrest would return."

What about a diplomatic "pouch?"

"Diplomatic bags can be any size that the country wants them to be and they cannot be opened or detained in transit," the BBC says. But, it adds, "the law says they are for official materials, so it is difficult to see how Julian Assange could be put in a crate and shipped out — not least because the British authorities would have a fairly clear idea what was in the box."

One suggestion — end diplomatic relations.

The Guardian's Gardner ends his piece with this:

"If I were advising the government, I think I'd say that, if ministers are determined to allow the arrest of Assange, it might be better simply to cut off diplomatic relations with Ecuador, send the ambassador home, close the embassy and arrest Assange after that. Ending diplomatic relations is the major sort of foreign affairs decision I doubt the courts would interfere with. But that'd be a major diplomatic call."

Or, make him an Ecuadorean citizen and ambassador?

There's a new post today at Darker Net (which mines the "information underground" and social media for its materials) that says "there is only one way that Julian Assange ... can leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London without being arrested":

"The Ecuadorean Government will need to grant him immediate citizenship and appoint him Honorary Consul, or better, UK or UN Ambassador and issue him with a diplomatic passport. Anything less will not work as the British authorities have upped the stakes and made it patently clear that they will ignore protocol and conventions to arrest Assange even if he is granted political asylum. With his diplomatic immunity of this order, if Assange chose to leave Britain he should do so by private plane, organised by Ecuador and within 31 days."

Update at 3:30 p.m. ET. British Have "All The Trump Cards":

British diplomats have "all the trump cards in their hands," says retired British ambassador Oliver Miles. "There's nothing the Ecuadorians could do to make life difficult for the British." But the U.K., he told NPR's Melissa Block this afternoon, has several options available for pressuring Ecuador — up to ejecting its ambassador and closing the embassy. Ecuador would surely respond by closing the British embassy in Quito, but that would not be a great blow to the U.K.

Much more from the conversation with Miles will be on today's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit



So Julian Assange has been granted asylum by Ecuador, but Britain says it will not grant him safe passage out of the country. How does this diplomatic impasse end? Retired British Ambassador Oliver Miles joins me to talk through some scenarios. Ambassador Miles, thanks for being with us.


BLOCK: You do hear this scenario put out there. Britain could cut off diplomatic relations, send the Ecuadorian ambassador home, close the embassy, and that would give them an avenue to arrest Julian Assange. Is there precedent for that?

MILES: Yes, there is. For example, if you take our breach relations with Libya in 1984, which I was involved in personally, I told the Libyans that they had to leave London within two weeks. Then, of course, they told us that we had to leave Tripoli, naturally. We waited until they had gone. And after they had gone, the British police went into the embassy premises and searched it. But they didn't go in until the diplomats had left.

BLOCK: Let's look at this from the Ecuadorian side. Say Ecuador were to get Assange into a diplomatic car to take him to the airport, does he have protection from arrest while he's in that car?

MILES: This is getting a bit technical, but my understanding is that if he could get into a diplomatic car - and that's a big if because I don't believe that the premises of the Ecuadorian Embassy would make that particularly easy - he might be arrested between the door of the embassy and the door of the car. But if that didn't happen and they got him into the car, my understanding is that the police would be able to stop the car, but not to search it.

BLOCK: And then there would still be the issue of getting him from the car onto an airplane.

MILES: And there seems no way they could do that.

BLOCK: You do hear this, and it does sound far-fetched, but there have been cases before where people were put into diplomatic crates - actually put in against their will, and they were discovered. But would that be a possibility here? Could the Ecuadorians put Julian Assange into a diplomatic crate and ship him out of Britain?

MILES: Yes. I suppose that possibility exists theoretically. But you have to remember that diplomatic bags, as they're called, are immune from inspection. Nevertheless, you can look at them and you can see what they are, and I think it will be difficult to design a diplomatic bag in which Julian Assange could be hidden.

BLOCK: But if Assange were in the diplomatic crate, say, does that have protection? I mean, is that open to search?

MILES: It's not open to search, no, but it's open to delay.

BLOCK: Oh, they could hold it.

MILES: Of course they could.

BLOCK: Well, that would present all kinds of problems, wouldn't it, for Mr. Assange?


MILES: Yes. Well, that's not the worst of it. I mean, another option, which I've been thinking about, is what you might call the Mindszenty option. Are you familiar with that?

BLOCK: I'm not, no.

MILES: Cardinal Mindszenty, who was the head of the Hungarian Church when the Russians invaded Hungary in 1956, he took refuge in the American Embassy, and he reigned there for 15 years. So I don't know whether Julian Assange would like to stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy for 15 years or whether the embassy would like to give him hospitality for 15 years. But it strikes me that from the British point of view, that's a perfectly satisfactory situation.

BLOCK: When you think about this impasse, Ambassador Miles, what do you think is the most plausible scenario for what will happen?

MILES: I think the reality is that the Ecuadorians are in a hopeless position. The British government will be able to carry out what they say they have to carry out under British law - namely to extradite him to Sweden. The British will simply say, OK, we want him, and if you don't give him to us today, you can give him to us tomorrow. And they'll keep on upping the ante, and they may, in the end, resort to declaring the ambassador persona non grata and closing the embassy, which they're perfectly entitled to do. I think one way or another, he'll be handed over.

BLOCK: That's former British ambassador to Libya, Luxembourg and Greece, Oliver Miles. He spoke with us from Oxford, England. Ambassador Miles, thanks so much.

MILES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.