Will the Ecuadorian embassy be stormed?

Litigation, and not broken glass, is the more likely consequence.

Last night the foreign minister of Ecuador warned that its London embassy was facing being “stormed” by the United Kingdom government. There had even been a threat in writing, it was claimed. This was a rather dramatic announcement, and it evoked images of SAS soldiers crashing through embassy windows to capture their cornered prey.

The reality seems to be more mundane. The UK government appears to have pointed out that it has the legal power to revoke the embassy status of the premises currently being used by the Ecuadorian embassy. (See Carl Gardner’s excellent post on the applicable law.) As such, this is merely a statement of what the law says. The UK government added that it does not want to use that power and hopes for an eventual compromise. Any threat is at best implicit, but it is hardly a brutal ultimatum.

And what would happen next is even less exciting.  As the UK government will be purporting to be exercising a statutory provision – in this case a power under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 – then any executive action is in principle amenable to the jurisdiction of the High Court for judicial review.  Here it would be Ecuador challenging the UK government in a case that would raise complex points of domestic and international public law.

Accordingly, there will not be breaking glass in Kensington but the prospect of months (or perhaps years) of highly expensive litigation, which will probably reach the Supreme Court. In reality, Ecuador should now be more concerned about lawyers’ bills than any special forces “storming” its embassy.  

All the same, it does appear to be unwise for the UK government to even suggest that the embassy status is at risk. Whilst it is correct that a premises not actually being properly used as an embassy should not have the same legal protection as premises that are being used for such a purpose, it is difficult to see how giving refuge even to someone facing allegations of rape and sexual assault and a valid arrest warrant (and who is also in breach of bail conditions) is by itself sufficient to say the embassy is being so entirely misused that the UK government can invoke the 1987 Act.  And, as a matter of Realpolitik, what the UK government does to embassies in London can also be done to its embassies abroad. 

Of course, this is just one aspect of a mutual exercise in smoke and mirrors by the UK and Ecuadorian governments.  The claim by the Ecuadorian foreign minister may be spin to cover an eventual backing-down, or a signal of a more defiant approach. There may already be a deal between the two countries.   There may be the granting of asylum status, or not.  But there is little new of substance behind the strident assertions of the Ecuadorian foreign minister: the UK government has always had a residual power which it can exercise subject to the High Court, and the Ecuador government has presumably always known this.

International law is important: embassies should be safe and only have their status revoked in exceptional circumstances. But valid European arrest warrants are also part of international law, and they bind the UK if not Ecuador.  The UK is currently in breach of its obligation to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden, just as Assange is in breach of his bail conditions.  In seeking to facilitate the extradition of Assange, the UK government is trying to uphold the law and not break it.

And so due process continues to be evaded, and the rights of the complainants of rape and sexual assault still remain frustrated. However, complainants of rape and sexual assault have rights too.  And the longer this matter drags out, the less chance of any justice in respect of the original allegations.  That is the real scandal.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

Metropolitan Police Officers not storming the Ecuadorian embassy. Photograph: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era