The Foreign Office’s assertion that under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act it could remove the Ecuadorian embassy’s diplomatic status in order to arrest Julian Assange and extradite him to Sweden sits uncomfortably with the International Court of Justice’s judgment in the Tehran Hostages case (1980).
Although the Court observed that under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations the premises of a diplomatic mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the mission’s lawful functions, it emphasised that “the rules of diplomatic law constitute a self-contained regime which, on the one hand, lays down the receiving State’s obligations regarding the facilities, privileges and immunities to be accorded to diplomatic missions and, on the other, foresees their possible abuse by members of the mission and specifies the means at the disposal of the receiving State to counter any such abuse”. After declaring that “the principle of the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions is one of the very foundations of this long-established regime”, the Court noted that a receiving State can ultimately, at its discretion, break off diplomatic relations with a sending State and call for the immediate closure of the offending mission. But it stressed that even in the case of armed conflict or a breach in diplomatic relations the inviolability of the mission’s premises must be respected. And it ended by reiterating that there is “no more fundamental prerequisite for the conduct of relations between States than the inviolability of diplomatic envoys and embassies”.
Ecuador and the UK are both parties to the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes. This provides that disputes arising out of the interpretation or application of the Convention lie within the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction and may be brought before the Court on application by any party to the dispute. It would be in the interests of both States and the rule of law for this to happen. In particular, the ICJ should be asked whether withdrawing acceptance of the embassy’s diplomatic status in the present circumstances would – as the Act requires – be permissible under international law.
Posted on behalf of the post’s author, Nick Grief, Professor of International Law