Historically, there have been countless cases of individuals seeking political asylum in foreign embassies. From priests, to public figures, to dissenting civilian, it is a phenomenon we have seen before. However, taking refuge in embassies has recently gained new prominence in legal discussions because of the increased number of cases making news. Two figures come to mind specifically- that of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and Australian whistle-blower Julian Assange. The discussions about asylum usually look at its legality, but that is a relatively well established subject matter. A more interesting facet to consider is whether or not it is an effective decision on the part of the possible victim.
In order to understand the duties an embassy has toward refugees, it is important to see how the immunity of embassies emerged. It was Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 which established the ‘rule of inviolability.’ In this convention, the international community formalized the long-held belief that an embassy was under the legal jurisdiction of its own country rather than that of the host nation. Consequently local authorities are not allowed to set foot on embassy territory without the permission of the ambassador, who is the representative of the nation and its laws.
The diplomatic immunity awarded to embassies makes them the perfect place to go if one is being persecuted. Additionally, human rights law has established that embassies must take in individuals seeking asylum and review their case before releasing them. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights contain clauses which outline a country’s responsibility to consider whether there is a chance for a refugee to be injured or killed if they are left to deal with local authorities.
On the part of the individual seeking refuge, there has to be an understanding that an embassy will always take its national political interests into account when making a decision over granting asylum. Some countries, most notably the United States, will choose to shelter people in order to defend principles and send a message to the host country. Others are slightly less altruistic, choosing to only protect their own interests.
In the case of Julian Assange, deciding on seeking the protection of Ecuador seems like an overwhelming mistake. According to Human Rights Watch many journalists in Ecuador have been imprisoned because of laws which can punish individuals for a lack of respect for government officials. Nevertheless, if one considers Assange’s decision further, it seems likely that Ecuador will grant him asylum. Firstly, the country is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, meaning it must look at all applications submitted by refugees. Secondly, it would seem that Julian Assange has a personal relationship with the president, Correa. He interviewed him on a Russian TV show, in which Correa thanked Assange for revealing that the US ambassador to Quito was telling the US government that there was corruption in the country, thereby facilitating her expulsion from office.
Still, the risk for Assange is great if he isn’t taken in by the Ecuadorian government, just as it was for Chen Guangcheng. Both individuals were wanted for the police (and for Assange it isn’t just the authorities of one country!), meaning that if the embassies denied their request, they would face even greater turmoil.
For more information, see the sources below:
Julian Assange: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Assange
Chen Guangcheng: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Guangcheng
Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961: http://untreaty.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/9_1_1961.pdf
Universal Declaration of Human Rights: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/