The UK's Foreign Secretary has refused to rule out storming the Ecuadorian embassy to arrest Julian Assange and pack him off to Sweden.
On Tuesday, The Right Honourable William Jefferson Hague met with the vice president of Ecuador over the Assange issue. When questioned about it by the BBC on Wednesday, Hague described the meeting as "amicable," but didn't rule out entering the embassy by force – although he denied that any threats had been made.
"We've made clear the full legal position to the Ecuadorians and we stressed right at the beginning of this, and in all the notes we've sent them over the last few weeks, that we're looking for an amicable solution," he said. "But we're legally bound to arrest Mr Assange and extradite him to Sweden, and there's no legal basis for the government to do anything else."
The British government is reserving the right to enter the embassy under the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, which was passed after the shooting of police officer Yvonne Fletcher by Libyan embassy officials, and the subsequent police siege. Under the terms of the act, the government claims the right to remove any embassy's diplomatic status to allow entry by the police.
Ever since Assange skipped bail and sought refuge in the embassy, the local Met police have been clocking up overtime pay, with a ring of helmets around the embassy intent on making sure Assange doesn't slip out the back door.
The police plan, accidentally revealed by a copper forgetting to cover his notes from photographers, shows they have orders to search everything coming in and out of the embassy, even diplomatic freight that is considered inviolate under the terms of the 1961 Treaty of Vienna.
Giving Assange a diplomatic passport so he can get out of the country won't work either, since the UK government would have to sign off on any accreditation. Given the current attitude, the day that happens Satan will have to drive to work in a snow plough.
"This may go on for a long time," Hague warned. "We agreed yesterday that our officials would continue to talk about finding a solution but clearly, given Ecuador's position on what they call diplomatic asylum and our very clear legal position, such a solution is not in sight at the moment."
Hague also denied reports that he had taken the decision to pursue Assange against the advice of senior British diplomatic lawyers, some of whom have expressed doubts that breaching diplomatic norms would put Britain's overseas offices at risk.
"We took these decisions together in the Foreign Office with a good deal of agreement," Hague said. This view is not shared by many, including former British ambassador Craig Murray.
"The domestic legislation of a country cannot counter its obligations in international law, unless it chooses to withdraw from them," Murray wrote. "If the government does not wish to follow the obligations imposed on it by the Vienna Convention, it has the right to resign from it – which would leave British diplomats with no protection worldwide."
This El Reg hack is no lawyer, but Murray seems to have a point. When the police laid seige to the Libyan embassy after the Fletcher shooting, the late and little-lamented Muammar Gaddafi surrounded the local British embassy and six British nationals were held hostage for over nine months before being released.
While the UK government claims to have legal right on its side, many in the international community are not so sure. Storming the embassy to snatch Assange could open other countries to taking a similarly relaxed view to the legitimacy of British diplomatic premises. ®