Embassy Asylum: A Historical Perspective
Julian Assange’s successful bid for asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and the British threats to raid the embassy bring about some interesting questions about the history of being granted asylum inside an embassy.
The 1961 Vienna Convention theoretically renders embassy soil inviolable, while a 1980’s British law allows the British government to attack embassies under certain conditions. This rather odd contradiction is the result of parliament’s reaction to the 1984 killing of Yvonne Fletcher, a British policewoman shot by someone inside the Libyan Embassy who was firing at protesters. British forces surrounded but didn’t raid the embassy, and Libyan forces did the same to the British embassy in Tripoli. The end result was the expulsion of the Libyan embassy staff and the temporary end of diplomatic ties with Libya.
Despite parliament legalizing raids on embassies against the country’s will, such operations haven’t been carried out in this circumstance and the consequences are unclear at best.
The United States doesn’t officially grant in-embassy asylum anymore, but it did in 1956 when Hungarian Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty fled to the embassy after a failed anti-Soviet revolution. Mindszenty lived in the US embassy in Budapest for 15 years, unable to leave the embassy until 1971, when the Vatican compromised with the Communist Hungarian regime and he was allowed to flee into exile.
The asylum grant was a serious hassle for the US embassy, as the Hungarian government refused to allow them to expand during his stay and he reportedly took up considerable space. Other attempts to secure asylum in US embassies, including one high profile effort by a community of Siberian Christians who fled to the Moscow Embassy in 1963, have been rejected and Mindszenty remains a “special case.”
The US State Department insists that the asylum bid has nothing to do with the US and that it doesn’t intend to get involved. Rep. Eliot Engel (D – NY), however, claimed that Ecuador’s granting of asylum to Assange was an effort to spite the United States.
Former British Ambassador Oliver Miles seemed to be citing the Mindszenty stalemate with respect to Assange today when he asked if “Assange and the Ecuadoreans have the stomach for 15 years of co-habitation.”