Embassy Asylum: A Historical Perspective

Jason Ditz, August 16, 2012

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.”




19 Responses to “Embassy Asylum: A Historical Perspective”

  1. I think I remember reading about a family of Russian Pentecostals who sought and recieved refuge inside the US embassy in Moscow for years also.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. I'll have to chew on that for a while. Interesting analysis.
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  5. Does antiwar not filter linkspam (see comments earlier here?)

    At Salon.com (damn that website is fugly), Murtaza Hussain writes that, legally the embassy is Ecuadorean territory. This is untrue.

    The Register writes that

    Contrary to what you might read, the Ecuadorian embassy is not considered Ecuadorian soil. Instead, under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the host state’s police are prevented from entering a guest country’s embassy.

    That means the Met and and other UK forces are prevented, by convention, from entering the embassy to arrest Assange for breaking the terms of his bail. He had been arrested under a European warrant and was under orders to stay at his home address until his extradition date.

  6. “It was a big mistake,” said former British ambassador Oliver Miles. “It puts the British government in the position of asking for something illegitimate.”

    Read more: In U.K. threat to Ecuador regarding Assange, experts see mistake – Washington Times

    Show me one stance for last 20 years that UK foreign policies has been based on the matter of facts presented and is supported by the UK government telling the truth..? From the time in Balkan war till Iraq war and now Syria and Mr. Julian Assange situation, the UK present liberal fascist government, including the Labor party Tony Blair and his lies about Iraq war, is the facts that these people have presented and supported by governments of their kind, in another word British government, among others, are working against themselves by braking the laws of all kind. these people are war criminals and now they want to brake the law which they themselves ratified. What happened to that inquiry about Tony Blair and his lies about Iraq war, where is that Tony Blair, why is he still free, why is he not in ICC court answering war crime equations.

    Let Maning and Julian Assange go free, they have done nothing wrong, they just lightened the brutality and indiscriminately war crimes committed by an militarism regimes all over the world.

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  9. Not mentioned is the refuge taken by Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi in 1989 at the US embassy in Beijing. After some time he was allowed to travel to the US.

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  12. Thank you for this fine article. There is, however, one other more recent example of a U.S. grant of extended political asylum, namely for the prominent Chinese astrophysicist, Fang Lizhi and his wife who had spoken out in favor of student democracy movement in 1987-88 and the dissidents during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and were being pursued by the Chinese government. They were given asylum and housing in a secret section of the embassy, where they remained for 18 months. Their whereabouts in the embassy were kept from all but a few of the Embassy staff, and during this period the U.S. remained on alert for any attempt by the Chinese government to penetrate the grounds and seize the Fangs. The upshot of it however is that the Chinese government respected U.S. sovereignty and did not invade the embassy grounds, but instead negotiated a complex settlement with the U.S. that allowed Fang Lizhi to emigrate to Great Britain. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fang_Lizhi and also Ambassador Lilley’s memoir “China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure,Espionage,and Diplomacy in Asia” which discusses the asylum incident and intrigue in some detail.) Part of the reason this succeeded was that the Administration was willing to negotiate and pursue a dual policy of engagement and advocacy of human rights.

  13. 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.

  14. "British threats to raid the embassy bring about some interesting questions about the history of being granted asylum inside an embassy."
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