In 2012, after losing at the U.K. Supreme Court the appeal that would avoid his extradition to Sweden, the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, requested refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, claiming political persecution and an eventual possibility of death if he were extradited to the United States, where still exists, at least in some states, the infamous death penalty. Not long after, the Government from the Republic of Ecuador, governed at the time by Rafael Correa, granted Assange diplomatic asylum and allowed him to stay in the Ecuadorian diplomatic mission in London.
The dispute around Assange´s asylum in the diplomatic installations of the Ecuador embassy in the U.K. is not only fuelled by political contentions but also by pure international law debates. To begin with, the legal figure used in the Assange case is known as diplomatic asylum which is different from the extensively known political asylum. Also, there is a dispute around the extradition proceedings concept, its practice in European countries and its application and understanding in Latin American nations.
The principal difference between diplomatic and political asylum relies on the physical place where the refugee seeks protection. With political asylum this is within the formal territory of a country, and for diplomatic asylum, within the diplomatic mission of a country in a particular receiving state. Additionally, the international instruments supporting both forms of asylum are different; the right of political asylum is recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the well-known norm of customary international law which reaffirms the discretion of a country to offer and grant asylum in its territory. Conversely, as Ecuador stated in its motivation to grant asylum to Julian Assange, there is the Organization of American States Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and the international principle that prohibits the return, extradition, or expulsion of an asylum seeker to a country of persecution.
What is more, there is a substantial difference between Latin American countries, European countries and the United States of America in terms of how they approach the concept of diplomatic asylum. European countries and the U.S. consider that diplomatic asylum is not protected by international law and thus Ecuador was obligated to hand Assange to the U.K authorities as he had a lawful extradition petition from Sweden. Contrarily, as demonstrated by the Asylum Case between Colombia and Peru or the Cuban case involving the Peruvian embassy in Havana in 1980, Latin America has a history of acknowledging diplomatic asylum. Lastly, although opposing Ecuador’s decision in the Assange case, the U.K following the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that the premise of a diplomatic mission is inviolable and only penetrable by the receiving State if there is consent of the head of the mission, the U.K never apprehended Assange.
Despite the above, the asylum of the WikiLeaks founder ended on April the 11th, when the current president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, revoked Assange’s asylum and permitted his arrest. Lenin Moreno’s decision was criticized by former president Rafael Correa who has claimed that Moreno’s decision was based on a personal vendetta against him and his government. Although Correa’s comments are predictable, it is not less true that this decision happened in the middle of a corruption scandal against Moreno and a descending approbation of his policies. Furthermore, the additional revoking of Assange’s Ecuadorian nationality, which represented an obstacle in any claim of extradition (as the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador forbids the extradition of any Ecuadorian), accentuate the worries around Assange.
That being said, and having in mind one potential extradition to the U.S., the future events on the Assange case will be crucial and should remain in the public agenda as the consequences for international law, diplomacy and human rights might be decisive.