Friday, August 17, 2012

Examining Ecuador's Decision to Grant Assange Asylum

Ecuador announced Thursday that it would grant the asylum request of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

But Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague reaffirmed that the UK could not give Assange safe passage to leave the country. He also denied that the UK would consider removing the Ecuadorian embassy’s diplomatic status, which would allow British law enforcement to enter the building and arrest Assange. As the AFP points out, “Entering the embassy without Ecuador's permission would challenge a fundamental principle of diplomacy, and the threat has left Britain in unchartered legal waters.”

Britain would be able to revoke the embassy building’s diplomatic status based on a little-known piece of legislation passed in 1987. The Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act was passed after a gunman killed a police officer by firing from inside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984. The gunman avoided arrest by staying inside the building, and was eventually able to leave the country.

As the Telegraph explains, it’s unclear whether this Act would apply in Assange’s case, which does not involve a breach of international law like terrorism. Removing the Ecuadorian embassy’s diplomatic status could also feed a diplomatic crisis for Britian across the world, if other countries retaliate by removing the status of Britian’s embassies.

In a press conference  in Quito, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said that he did not think Britain would resort to such measures, Reuters reports. "I don't think they will dare to infringe international law,” Patiño said.

If Britain refuses to grant refugee status to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, allowing him safe passage out of England to Ecuador, the case will be brought towards the International Court of Justice, Assange’s lawyer said, as the Telegraph reports. Britain's foreign secretary added that the legal stalemate could continue for months, or even longer.

The Telegraph does lay out one scenario in which Assange could possibly leave the country without being arrested:

“Diplomatic immunity applies to an embassy's means of transportation as well as its building, meaning Assange could be transported to the airport safely by an official Ecuadoran car. But British police could intervene legally if he steps foot on the pavement to get from the Embassy to the car, or walks from the car through the airport to a plane. There have even been suggestions that Assange could be transported over these short distances using a diplomatic bag, which are also safe from interference by a home nation.”

The Guardian also examines a set of possible exit strategies.

Ecuador’s decision to grant Assange his asylum request was largely interpreted as evidence of Ecuador’s ability to take such an action, without fear of serious political repercussions from either the US or the UK. According to the AP’s analysis:

"Offering asylum to the man responsible for the biggest-ever spilling of U.S. secrets was apparently too attractive for Correa to resist. It let him stake a claim to moral high ground, associating himself with a man whose loyalists consider him a digital age Robin Hood crusading against abuses of big governments and corporations."

But Ecuador likely arrived at its decision for other reasons that have little to do with “poking the US in the eye,” to paraphrase a comment that U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) made to the AP. Global Post points out that by granting Assange asylum, President Rafael Correa “could be looking  to re-position himself as a defender of journalistic freedom.” It is also worth noting that presenting the US as an actor with interests in the Assange case raises tricky questions, as the US State Department has publicly asserted that it has no interest in getting involved or in persecuting Assange (Assange and his supporters contend otherwise).

Global Post also examines the Ecuadorian foreign ministry’s official statement granting asylum to Assange, and argues that it possible to “detect a whiff of hypocrisy” in the document’s justification of Assange’s asylum. According to the Global Post, the statement cites several conventions which are “keystones” for the Inter-American Human Rights Comission, which Correa has previously criticized for its alleged double standards.

At the Guardian, Mark Weisbrot of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research makes his own case for why Ecuador offered Assange asylum and was justified in doing so, asserting that “Correa made this decision because it was the only ethical thing to do.” The BBC has its own take on Ecuador’s decision, noting that if nothing else, Correa’s choise is “unsurprising.”

In other coverage, Bloggings by Boz looks ahead for what Assange’s asylum case could mean for similar cases playing out across Latin America, particularly if other regional bodies including the OAS, ALBA, and UNASUR choose to weigh in. More from the London Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal (with a timeline), and the AP.

News Briefs
  • Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina was sworn into office, reports the BBC. Medina comes to power after a controversial election in May in which his opponent, former President Hipolito Mejia, rejected the results.
  • The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released its findings on what happened on May 11 in Honduras, when four boat passengers were shot dead during an anti-drug operation that involved Honduran and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. The report, based on a visit made in July, focuses on collecting information from surviving victims and other eyewitnesses, and reconstructs a narrative of the day’s events. The report concludes that the “military-style tactics applied to drug interdiction efforts” in Honduras are negatively impacting local indigenous communities, and “are not yielding effective results.” The Honduran investigation of the incident is moving slowly and is of “poor quality,” the CEPR notes, arguing that US has not been sufficiently cooperative. Honduras Culture and Politics notes that Honduran media have focused on the CEPR’s finding that the DEA played a more significant role in the operation than was originally claimed. 
  • The  trial of former Guatemala police chief Pedro García Arredondo began in Guatemala; Arredondo is accused of masterminding in the disappearance of a university student in 1981. More from Central American Politics
  • The Economist praises President Dilma Rousseff’s decision to partly privatize Brazil’s infrastructure: “Ms Rousseff, like her party, is instinctively hostile to anything akin to privatisation. But she has clearly concluded that without private-sector involvement, the infrastructure Brazil needs will never be built.”
  • Although Mexico claims it has arrested seven suspects who have confessed to the murder of four media workers in Veracruz, the assertion has been met with skepticism. Mike O’Connor of the Committee to Protect Journalists to the New York Times: “Federal authorities say the confessions are worthless, lacking any prosecutable details. There is no crime scene, there is a place where they were found, but no place where they were killed, no weapons, no motive.”
  • The Economist argues that the five-month transition period until president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto takes power in Mexico may have given “undeserved coverage to Andrés Manuel López Obrador” due to a “news vacuum.”