After being charged with rape in Sweden and facing extradition from Great Britain, Julian Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy, seeking safe haven in exile. However, the British have not responded kindly to this, and tensions are on the rise. This morning, there are various reports both from media outlets and from people on the ground tweeting saying a potential showdown could be imminent. Although Ecuador has said it’s willing to allow Assange to remain in the embassy “indefinitely” [UPDATE: Ecuador just announced it is willing to grant Assange asylum], the Great Britain is still threatening to act, with the possibility of cutting off diplomatic relations with Ecuador. The British government has even threatened to storm Ecuador’s embassy in order to arrest Assange.
Of course, this latter issue is highly problematic. Forcibly entering an embassy is a clearly a violation of international law, particularly of the ruling that host countries cannot enter an embassy (or other diplomatic mission) without the permission of the mission’s country, as outlined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which both Ecuador and Great Britain are parties to. This makes Britain’s position particularly untenable, since it claims it is willing to violate international law to enforce a rape law in Sweden. Regardless of what one thinks of the accusations against Assange, in theory a government willing to break international law has a harder time using the law as a recourse. Beyond legal theory, however, invading Ecuador’s assembly could have very real international consequences for the British government; should Britain’s government order the invasion of the Ecuadoran embassy, it also opens up Britain’s embassies abroad to similar invasions from other host countries.
Of course, not all in London support the move, and at least a handful of protesters were arrested this morning in a scuffle with police. Nonetheless, it is clear that Ecuador is not willing to surrender Assange, while Great Britain could conceivably violate international law in order to extradite somebody to face trial in Sweden. I don’t think it will come to that, but I do think that this is one of those instances of “who will blink first?” I suspect Great Britain will have to back down (though I’ve been wrong before), but regardless, the diplomatic implications here now go far beyond Assange’s own questionable past and have turned into a not-insignificant diplomatic crisis.