1. ITV Report

The legal background to the Julian Assange diplomatic standoff

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Photo: Press Association

Ecuador has granted Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's request for political asylum, two months after he took refuge in its London embassy.

Assange has been holed up in the embassy for eight weeks to avoid extradition to Sweden where he faces questioning over sexual assault allegations.

The Foreign Office has warned that it could lift the embassy's diplomatic status to fulfil a "legal obligation" to extradite Mr Assange by using the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987.

Here is some legal background:

  • The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says in article 22 that the premises of a diplomatic mission "shall be inviolable". It says the agents of the host state "may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission".
  • In article 41, the same convention says: "The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention." The text does not say those functions include providing a safe haven for people wanted by the courts.
  • Under Britain's Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987, land "ceases to be diplomatic or consular premises" under two conditions: "if a state ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission" or "if the Secretary of State withdraws his acceptance or consent in relation to land".
  • However, the act goes on to say: "The Secretary of State shall only give or withdraw consent or withdraw acceptance if he is satisfied that to do so is permissible under international law.
  • Lawyers say this means the situation is not clear-cut. Britain could use the 1987 act to strip the Ecuadorian embassy of its diplomatic status, but several legal avenues would be open to Ecuador if it wished to challenge that.

Former government lawyer Carl Gardner said Ecuador's decision to grant Mr Assange asylum "is not a magic wand".