Let us say you are facing rape charges in Sweden. You exhaust the near inexhaustible legal system in Britain in fighting an extradition case. You alienate even your ideological comrades at the Guardian by disdaining journalistic ethics regarding the protection of dissidents in authoritarian regimes. Then, as a desperate last resort, you smuggle yourself into the embassy of one such regime and plead asylum, breaking UK law (by violating the terms of your parole) and frittering away the sizable surety put up by your celebrity supporters in the process (not they mind, tenderheaded sweeties that they are). Asylum is granted, but you now face a new dilemma. If you step outside of the embassy, you’ll be arrested. The Foreign Office states that it will not allow you safe passage out of the country. What do you do?
As it happens, one enterprising blogger called Carl Gardner has figured it all out and even if he’s wrong, he’s given the imagination a good workout. Among the three options Julian Assange has at his disposal, should ever wish to trade in his air mattress at Hans Crescent for a villa in Quito, are the following.
He can be smuggled out of the Ecuadorian embassy in a “diplomatic bag” so long as it bears “visible external marks of [its] character”. Much as I’d love to see an Australian-shaped duffel bag marked “Fragile: Amoral Megalomanic with Persecution Complex” loaded onto a cargo carousel at Heathrow, the contingency here is remote. As Gardner points out, via another legal expert in these matters, in 1982 the Nigerian government tried to sneak a drugged and kidnapped former minister called Umaru Dikko, then enjoying exile in London, out of Britain in a crate -- with the help of three Israeli Mossad agents, two of whom were hidden in a second crate. Problem was, neither crate was adequately marked as diplomatically inviolate and the plan was foiled. And assuming that Ecuadorian charge d’affaires is savvier in these matters than Mossad, there is the physical toll such skulduggery takes. Assange already feels uncomfortable enough in a condom; how can he brave the 18 hour-plus flight (with a connection!) to Quito zipped or hammered shut?
His second choice is to be appointed a “diplomatic courier” transporting a parcel that the UK has no right to open or inspect. But here immunity goes only so far as Assange is performing his duties as a courier, which he plainly would not be in these circumstances. Too risky.
The third and most intriguing option is one that I can actually see working given the institution it would enlist as an accomplice: the United Nations. According to Gardner:
Ecuador could theoretically appoint Assange one of its representatives to the United Nations, under rule 25 of the UN General Assembly’s Rules of Procedure. It’s true that a Credentials Committee (on which the United States sits at the moment, as a matter of interest) would consider and report on Assange’s appointment, and that the General Assembly would then make a decision on it – and could presumably reject him. But under rule 29, he would be “seated” provisionally until the General Assembly made its decision – and crucially, would have the same rights as other representatives. That presumably includes the special kind of diplomatic immunity granted by article IV, section 11 of the New York Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.
Under this mechanism, Assange could travel the world with immunity so long as his destination was a U.N. base in New York, Geneva, Vienna or elsewhere.
Will the UK let this happen? As a two-year resident on these shores, I’d like to say of course not but then, “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe”, Abu Qatada, lives in a taxpayer-subsidised house in Wembley. He’s been fighting a deportation order for seven years. If he’s not named Mali’s ambassador to Afghanistan by 2014, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
UPDATE: Former Foreign Office official Charles Crawford has dug deeper into the “diplomatic bag” option and decided that it’s a no-go even if Assange were game:
Here is some handy guidance from (of all people) HM Customs and Revenue sharing with us a Note from FCO Protocol Directorate:Missions are further reminded that in deciding whether particular articles may be carried in a diplomatic bag they are required to observe the requirements not only of Article 27.4 (“only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use”) but also of Article 41.1 (“laws and regulations of the receiving state”).
It is particularly stressed in this context that the regulations governing the import and possession of firearms in the UK are among those which must be observed, regardless of any claim that any firearms may be intended for official use.
In other words, if a man-shaped diplomatic bag is seen emerging from the Ecuadorean 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.