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William Hague must continue to act reasonably over the Julian Assange affair

By Peter Hoskin
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You’ve got to slightly feel for William Hague this morning. Only a few days after he’s given the keys to the country, to look after it while David Cameron’s on holiday, a fiendishly tricky diplomatic row lands through the letterbox. The continued presence of Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy — shirking the serious rape allegations that await him in Sweden — is a stain on the national record of the country that is harbouring him, and could prove embarrassing for the United Kingdom too. But one misstep, and it might turn much worse than that.

Was Mr Hague’s decision to warn Ecuadorian diplomats that we might seize Mr Assange from within the embassy such a misstep? Even if so, you can certainly understand why he took it. The Foreign Secretary, we are told, did not mean for his warning to become public. It was intended less as a solid threat, and more as a quiet way of nudging the Ecuadorians into handing Mr Assange over before they took any rash decisions themselves. It was little more than a last ditch bid to make them see sense.

Things would look very different this morning if that plan had worked, as it might have. But, of course, it didn’t. The Ecuadorian Embassy has granted Mr Assange asylum, and it’s left Downing St sources admitting (to the Times (£)) that “the tactic did not work as intended”. It also angered Nick Clegg, who urged the Foreign Office not to escalate things further.

The real misstep now would be if the government actually acted on William Hague’s original warning — and sent in the police, or the troops or whomever, to pinch Mr Assange. Ecuador’s actions are an affront to the processes of justice, yes. But to storm onto protected diplomatic ground would be another sort of affront that we might regret in future. As numerous newspaper editorials ask this morning: what would it mean for (deserving) people seeking refuge in British embassies abroad? There are times when we should — and have — battered down the doors, but doing so in Mr Assange’s case sets a very low bar and a very dangerous precedent.

It’s fortunate, then, that this doesn’t appear to be William Hague’s primary course of action. He is still standing firm on the legalities — saying that “we will not allow Mr Assange safe passage out of the UK, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so” — but it’s very possible that we will just have to wait for Mr Assange to emerge from his shelter, if he ever does. In the meantime, we can speculate how he might try to escape untouched. I’ll leave you with this snippet from the Times (£), which fills in some of the details:  

“If Mr Assange were to leave the embassy, perhaps his best claim to legal protection from arrest would be as an Ecuadorian diplomatic courier, charged with the task of taking a diplomatic bag. Under the convention, a diplomatic courier ‘shall enjoy person inviolability and shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention’.

Smuggling him out inside a diplomatic package is unlikely. While such packages are legally protected from being opened, and are not limited in size, they are not supposed to contain human beings.

Charles Crawford, a former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, cited a note from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Protocol Directorate, which states that packages may contain only ‘diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use’.

‘In other words,’ he wrote in a blog posting, ‘if a man-shaped diplomatic bag is seen emerging from the Ecuadorian Embassy and we prod it with a pitchfork to confirm that it contains only diplomatic items, a squeak of ‘Ouch!’ would give us all the legal options we need to ask the Ecuador embassy politely to undo it and show us what or who is therein.”



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