Roger O’Keefe is Deputy Director, Lauterpacht Centre; University Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Cambridge and Fellow & College Lecturer in Law, Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Ecuador has alleged that the UK has ‘threatened’ to rely on the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 (‘DCPA’) to enter the Ecuadorian embassy to arrest Julian Assange, who has taken refuge there in order to avoid his extradition to Sweden (see, e.g. a Guardian report here). In a letter said by Ecuador to have been delivered through a British embassy official in Quito, the UK government is purported to have stated:
You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy.
We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.
We only have Ecuador’s word for it that the UK government has made this ‘threat’, and we should be cautious in accepting this without corroboration. But let us assume for the sake of argument that the allegation is true.
The DCPA—‘[a]n Act to make provision as to what land is diplomatic or consular premises’, in part of the words of the long title—regulates, among other things, the UK government’s acceptance of or consent to the designation of land in the UK as diplomatic or consular premises. The relevant provision in this case is presumably section 1(3) of the Act, which provides in relevant part:
(a) a State ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post; or
(b) the Secretary of State withdraws his acceptance or consent in relation to land,
it thereupon ceases to be diplomatic or consular premises for the purposes of all enactments and rules of law.
The main enactment alluded to in section 1(3) is the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964 (‘DPA’), which enacts into UK law certain provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 (‘VCDR’), among them article 22(1), which codifies the rule that the premises of a diplomatic mission are inviolable. The inviolability of diplomatic premises means, among other things, that the authorities of the receiving state (here, the UK) may not enter the mission’s premises, except with the consent of the head of the mission. (This does not, contrary to popular misconception, make the embassy premises Ecuadorian territory. The premises remain UK territory, albeit UK territory that the UK authorities are not allowed by the DPA to enter without permission.) In short, the UK authorities may not enter the Ecuadorian embassy without the permission of the Ecuadorian ambassador—provided, that is, that the embassy premises remain diplomatic premises.
The suggestion would seem to be that the Ecuadorian embassy has ceased or will cease to be diplomatic premises within the meaning of section 1(3) DCPA and article 22(1) VCDR. There are two possible ways this could be argued to have happened or to happen.