It has been two months now that Julian Assange, founder of wikileaks, found refuge in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy in which he benefits of a diplomatic asylum, and that the British Police is besieging the building to arrest him as soon as he would go out. The legal implications of this situation are fascinating, and their playfulness would be amusing if what is a stake was not so important. Let us recall the context first: J.Assange is promised to be extradited to Sweden where he is accused of rape and sexual assault on two women (for more on that, watch the very good debate between two feminists on Democracy Now in December 2010). Once in Sweden, Assange would be likely to be then extradited to the United States in which he will be accused of spying activities through wikileaks.
Ecuador President Rafael Correa granted the right to Assange to stay inside the London Embassy as long as he would like to. The speech that the latter did last week at the balcony of the Embassy, surrounded by policemen, is illustrative of the intrinsic absurdity of law, and simultaneously of its greatness. Law can arguably be considered as the most artificial invention that was ever made. On his little balcony, J.Assange is safe from any police intervention. Should he have leaned over a bit too much and fell two meters below, a horde of policemen would have surely arrested him. Architecture has, of course, its full role to play here, as it materializes the limits of territory between a legal system and another. The balcony and its guardrail here are the paradigm of such material border.
The greatness of law is that it has been theoretically -and I insist on “theoretically” as it is never absolutely the case- conceived in the detachment of specific situations, and therefore is supposed to express a certain consensual idea of justice. It therefore applies -theoretically again- coldly to any situation and guarantees the same rights to all. In that case, the inviolability of the diplomatic right is applied to the great prejudice of the British, Swedish and American governments.
Let us not forget that what this situation also means is that Julian Assange is currently contained within a small building, which of course, is hardly comparable to a prison cell, but does not guarantee him a broad freedom of movement. A recent article in the French newspaper Le Monde, written by Louis Imbert, establishes a list of legal escapes that could be undertaken by Assange helped by the Ecuadorian government. I won’t give a literal translation of this article here, but rather a small digest of information that all come from it.
In April 1984, some anti-Gaddafi protesters were shot in front of the Libyan Embassy in London by weapons fired from inside the building. After eleven days of siege on the Embassy, the Libyan officials were expelled from the United Kingdom. Three years later, the Parliament voted the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 which allows the government to disobey to the 1961 Vienna Convention and override the diplomatic asylum in extraordinary circumstances. Until today, it used this act only once to expel squatters from the Cambodia Embassy in 1988.
What follows is Julian Assange’s options to escape according to L.Imbert:
- He could be called to be the Ecuadorian representative at the United Nations, and could therefore not be legally prevented to travel in order to attend the U.N. sessions.
- The Vienna Convention precises that diplomatic cars cannot be searched, which would allow Assange to be safe within one. Nevertheless, he would be obliged to leave the car to get into a plane and would be arrested then. The Ecuadorian Embassy being a small building, one has to leave it to access any car anyway.
- There is no restriction in the size that the diplomatic bag can be. One could then imagine that Assange could be placed in a human-scale container which could theoretically not be open by the British customs. In 1984, a former Nigerian minister,Umaru Dikko, had been kidnapped and put in such a container. Because of a failure in the procedure, the box had been open and the minister was then found. The status of this diplomatic bag, which should carry only official document, would however probably legitimize the British authorities to open the container.
- An illegal escape is also to be considered. There is a rooftop heliport fifty yards away from the Embassy which could be used in this regard as well as other options of disguise that could be inspired by the multitude of films introducing such escapes.
L.Imbert also evokes two historical cases of such asylums in Embassies. The first one is the longest of all, accomplished by the Hungarian cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who stayed for fifteen years (1956-1971) at the American Embassy in Budapest. The second one is interesting for the means used in the siege. In 1989, during the American invasion of Panama, Manuel Noriega the former dictator found shelter at the Vatican Embassy. The Americans would manage to arrest him ten days later, after setting-up gigantic speakers around the building and airing extremely loud music -one of the mode of torture currently use in Guantanamo.
Here ends Le Monde’s article. It is interesting to see that the law is usually introduced as an objective artifact, when, actually, it is very much open to interpretation. Similarly, its very base -and it means of application- consists in its full knowledge from its subjects. In reality, we can observe that legal questions are often resolved in the small folds of the law. This is problematic as some people know the law more extensively than others and therefore participate to the creation of a legal aristocracy, often overlapping the map of social classes -the way many very rich people use legal loopholes to pay less taxes is a regrettable example of such an overlapping. On the contrary, associations like the National Lawyer Guild in the United States, which continues to be extremely helpful in the confrontation between the police and the Occupy movement, are to be remarked for their dedicated use of expertise to a population who does not necessarily have enough resources to hire skillful lawyers. Architecture is tied to the practice of the law in a fascinating way, but more on that in a forthcoming series of articles.