Julian Assange, one of the founders of WikiLeaks, and its most visible member, was arrested at the Ecuador embassy in London, after Ecuador withdrew his asylum

Today, I announce that the discourteous and aggressive behavior of Mr. Julian Assange, the hostile and threatening declarations of its allied organization, against Ecuador, and especially, the trangression of international treaties, have led the situation to a point where the asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable

Wikileaks then made this tweet

Ecuador has illigally terminated Assange political asylum in violation of international law. He was arrested by the British police inside the Ecuadorian embassy minutes ago.

This is a purely political decision either way, but what international law(s) are at play here? Can the mere act of withdrawing asylum really be illegal?

  • 1
    It depends... Sources here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugee_law#Sources And yes, it can really be illegal to withdraw granted protection without meeting specific conditions. (No idea about Assange's specific case.) Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 14:54
  • 3
    Perhaps this question is better at Law. @DenisdeBernardy Assange does not seem to have been a refugee because he has become a citizen of Ecuador and was until recently enjoying the protection of one of his countries of nationality.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 17:56
  • @phoog I waffled on that one a while. I decided to ask it here because any decision that it was illegal would be inherently political (as would the ramifications), since we're strictly talking international law. Asking about Assange's specific legal predicament would definitely have to be asked on Law.SE
    – Machavity
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 18:01
  • 1
    @phoog: Per my initial comment, I'm not privy with his precise legal situation, or about whatever his lawyers argued. I've honestly no idea. That said if memory serves me well he was an asylum applicant at one point, and intuitively it would have made sense for his lawyers to argue that he risked unfair extradition to the US were he to go home (where he's basically persona non grata). Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 18:42
  • 3
    @Overmind Not really - this is a matter of UK Sovereignty. UK common law relies heavily on Precedent, and Julian Assange is - ignoring debate about guilt, innocence, or potential conspiracies on any other charges or accusations - guilty of skipping bail. The UK has to prosecute him for that, or they will face legal challenges from anyone else accused of the same. "US influence" might be a mitigating circumstance he raises at his trail (arguing that he feared for his life, despite the USA having stated that he faces at most 5 years in gaol if found guilty) for a lighter sentence. Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 11:37

4 Answers 4


what international law(s) are at play here?

In the case of Assange being removed from the Ecuadorian embassy with the consent of the ambassador -- only the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Subsequent likely proceedings are not covered in this answer but, for example, the Universal Decaration on Human Rights can apply to extradition proceedings.

Refugee vs Asylum seeker

The parts of international law that I have read (few) mostly seem to cover refugees. I suspect that most of us use these terms to mean more or less the same thing. There may be a subtle distinction in law that I don't know about (unsurprisingly)

However, there is a significant difference between withdrawing asylum in an embassy and expulsion from a country of refuge. Most International law seems to cover the latter.

Definition of refugee

At the beginning of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees it defines refugee. It does so by referring to older documents. Consequently I don't have a good grasp of how exactly one qualifies and what exceptions may exist.

We can all be reasonably certain that someone fleeing war in Syria and crossing into Turkey should be regarded as a refugee in international law. Assange's case is not so clear.

Citizenship and Asylum

Prior to 2017 Assange was an Australian citizen in the United Kingdom seeking Asylum in the embassy of Ecuador against possible extradition to Sweden because he feared extradition to the United States where he expected to be mistreated.

As phoog commented, in 2017 Assange obtained Ecuadorian citizenship. International laws do not provide for people to be an international refugee in their own country -- or at least that is not usually seen as an international matter. If Assange was an Ecuadorian citizen in Ecuadorian territory, the rest of this answer would not apply. I believe when you obtain citizenship in your country of refuge, you are now a citizen, not an international refugee.

Embassies and Territory

As the New York Times reports

As a matter of international law, an embassy is not ''territory'' of the sending state; it is territory of the receiving state that is accorded, through various treaties and customs, some immunities from host-country law.

This is important because someone being expelled from the London embassy of Ecuador is not being expelled from Ecuador.

Can the mere act of withdrawing asylum really be illegal?

International law on asylum applies where someone outside their home country applies for asylum in the country where they are present.

Some international laws do cover the situation where asylum or refugee-status is withdrawn or where someone is expelled from a country.

Generally a country "shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order".

Note that, with respect to Ecuador, Assange was not in their territory. lawfully or otherwise.

We can look at some International law, along with other reasons why they likely don't apply to Assange.

1928 Convention on Asylum

The 1928 Convention on Asylum was signed by Ecuador. The UK is not a signatory for geographical reasons so it does not apply to the UK nor to UK territory.

It says

Signed in Havana, February 20, 1928, at the Sixth International Conference of American States


Article 1.- It is not permissible for States to grant asylum in legations, warships, military camps or military aircraft, to persons accused or condemned for common crimes, or to deserters from the army or navy.

Persons accused of or condemned for common crimes taking refuge in any of the places mentioned in the preceding paragraph, shall be surrendered upon request of the local government.

Which suggests someone who is sheltering in a legation should be surrendered if they were accused of the common crime of failure to appear in court after being granted bail.

It doesn't explicitly say anything about withdrawing asylum though.

1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

I believe this applies to both UK territory and to Ecuadorian territory.


Someone who has committed a serious crime is excluded:

F. The provisions of this Convention shall not apply to any person with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that:


(b) he has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee;

A crime punishable by a year in prison may be serious enough.

New citizenship

C. This Convention shall cease to apply to any person falling under the terms of section A if:
(1) He has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality; or (2) Having lost his nationality, he has voluntarily re-acquired it; or (3) He has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality; or ...

Assange acquired Ecuadorian citizenship in 2017.


Sections 32 and 33 cover expulsion:

Article 32
1. The Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.

Of course there is another reason this does not apply to Assange -- he was not in the territory of Ecuador.

Being moved from one part of London to another part of London does not constitute expulsion from a country. Certainly not from Ecuador.

1954 Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum

The UK is not a signatory to this since it is not a member of the Organization of American States. So this does not apply to the UK or to actions on UK territory.

The governments of the Member States of the Organization of American States, desirous of concluding a Convention on Diplomatic Asylum, have agreed to the following articles:

Article I. Asylum granted in legations, war vessels, and military camps or aircraft, to persons being sought for political reasons or for political offenses shall be respected by the territorial State in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.


Article III. It is not lawful to grant asylum to persons who, at the time of requesting it, are under indictment or on trial for common offenses or have been convicted by competent regular courts and have not served the respective sentence, nor to deserters from land, sea, and air forces, save when the acts giving rise to the request for asylum, whatever the case may be, are clearly of a political nature.

At the time of his Asylum request, I believe Assange was indicted for extradition to Sweden on charges of rape. Assange promised the court he would show up in court at the specified date for this matter to be considered.

By not showing up, Assange became guilty of the crime of failure to appear.

Other useful references

  • Asylum Law - Encyclopædia Britannica

    The right of asylum falls into three basic categories: territorial, extraterritorial, and neutral.

  • Universal Decaration on Human Rights - UN

    Article 14

    1. Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution
    2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
  • President Moreno explicitly mentioned two conventions. The one that you have not covered is the 1954 Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum, Article 18 of which M. Moreno states was repeatedly violated by M. Assange. By my reading, that might be a bit of a stretch, unless M. Assange was interfering in U.K. politics.
    – JdeBP
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 16:21
  • There is also the question of whether Assange meets the definition of "refugee" in the 1951 convention. He does not appear to. I suppose his argument is that his potential extradition to Sweden or the US would be unlawful but that the UK courts are not to be trusted to agree, and that this therefore constitutes persecution. But to qualify under the convention, he would also have to show a fear that the courts of his country or countries of citizenship are also not to be trusted.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 17:40
  • 3
    Anyway, he is apparently an Ecuadorian citizen, so none of this actually applies.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 17:44
  • 5
    I hate to do this to you but I have since my last comment on this answer learned that apparently his Ecuadorian citizenship was revoked or "suspended" with the decision to allow the UK to arrest him.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 19:11
  • 4
    I am going to have a nice cup of tea. I may be some while. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 19:15

The obvious candidate treaty is the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Ecuador seems to be a contracting party. This has at least two relevant articles, dealing with expulsion in general, and return specifically.

Article 32: Expulsion

  1. The Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.

  2. The expulsion of such a refugee shall be only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with due process of law. Except where compelling reasons of national security otherwise require, the refugee shall be allowed to submit evidence to clear himself, and to appeal to and be represented for the purpose before competent authority or a person or persons specially designated by the competent authority.

  3. The Contracting States shall allow such a refugee a reasonable period within which to seek legal admission into another country. The Contracting States reserve the right to apply during that period such internal measures as they may deem necessary.

Article 33: Prohibition of expulsion or return

  1. No Contracting State shall expel or return ("refouler") a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

  2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgement of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.

  • 17
    The grounds of an embassy remain the territory of the host nation. Albeit, under the Vienna convention, a part that the host nation may not enter without invitation. For example: US embassies are not US territory "As a matter of international law, an embassy is not ''territory'' of the sending state; it is territory of the receiving state that is accorded, through various treaties and customs, some immunities from host- country law." -- Assange was in UK territory, not in Ecuadorian territory. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 15:16
  • 1
  • 5
    @origimbo: Can Ecuador expel someone from the UK into the UK? Also, 33.1 says "to the frontiers" -- In this case no frontiers are involved. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 15:20
  • 5
    @RedGrittyBrick Exactly. IMHO both articles explicitly mention the fact that they cannot expel the person from their territory. But Assange was never in Ecuador's territory. There is a difference between terminating the asylum (i.e. we will stop ignoring other countries request and protecting you from them) from expelling, i.e. physically moving the person outside the country territory. Ecuador terminated the asylum, it did not expel Assange.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 16:42
  • 1
    @user21878 UK police were invited in and removed him. He didn't leave voluntarily.
    – Caleth
    Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 9:37

Assange was a citizen of Ecuador (at least until Ecuador decided to stop protecting him), so the only law that applies to Ecuador's decision to allow the UK to arrest him in Ecuador's embassy is the national law of Ecuador. International law is irrelevant.

Even if the 1951 refugee convention ever applied to him, which is doubtful, it would have ceased to apply when he took Ecuadorian nationality. Article 1(C):

C. This Convention shall cease to apply to any person falling under the terms of section A if:

(1) ...; or
(2) ...; or
(3) He has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality; or

Ecuador's revocation or "suspension" of his Ecuadorian citizenship could prompt a reassessment of whether Assange meets the definition of refugee under the 1951 convention. To meet the definition, he would have to be "unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection" of Australia "owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

Refugee protection would enable him to avoid deportation or removal to Australia. None of that would prevent his extradition to the US or Sweden. If he's trying to establish that he is a refugee, he is barking up the wrong tree.

  • Finally it should be noted that there are no penalties for violating the 1951 refugee convention. Even if Ecuador did violate it, there's no one to sanction them for it. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 18:58
  • 3
    @JonathanReez that is also a point well taken, but it does go beyond the literal scope of the question. And violations of the convention could be used as the basis for sanctions or similar consequences, even if it does not explicitly provide for them. Still, if the answer had been that Ecuador's action clearly violated international law, the logical next question is "what are the consequences," and the answer to that would be "probably none."
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 19:16

In my entirely non-authorative personal opinion, Assange's arrest following what is incorrectly dubbed as "his asylum being withdrawn" was perfectly lawful (although it could have been unlawful under different conditions).

First of all, Assange's status of political asylum was not withdrawn (although Moreno himself said so, incorrectly). He was granted "protection of the embassy" while his application was being verified in June 2012, and he was granted asylum status in August of the same year. Protection of the embassy is, uh, something that... doesn't really mean anything at all. It basically says that the embassy doesn't quite agree to hand you over, that's all. Even under protection of an embassy, you could in theory very well be removed by force. Only just, that would be a diplomatic provocation which usually nobody wants to risk. So, usually, that's just accepted by the receiving country.

Asylum, well that's a different thing. But although Assange was granted asylum, he didn't leave it at that. Which wasn't very smart, as he found out.

Assange acquired Ecuadorean nationality in December 2017. As soon as he acquired that nationality, he was by definition, no longer a refugee seeking for asylum in Ecuador. He was now a citizen. His asylum status was not taken away, he gave it away freely (leaving him merely under the protection of the embassy, which means nothing).

Moreover, by fleeing into the embassy, Assange made himself subject to Article 20 of 2005/85/EC, which means that even if meanwhile he had also applied for asylum in UK or another EU country, they'd be entitled to void it under the "implicit withdrawal" clause, in a perfectly legal way, too. So, without being 100% sure that they'll keep you, fleeing into an embassy, is only the second most intelligent thing you can do...

Lastly, by fleeing, Assange violated the conditions of his parole, which (whether or not he was guilty of anything before) definitively made him a criminal, by all legal means. So, his arrest is not just undoubtly lawful, it is also "right".

An embassy is subject to the Vienna Convention. Article 41 states that everybody enjoying privileges and immunities (so, basically, embassy staff) has the duty to comply with laws and regulations of the receiving state. It also explicitly says that the mission is accomodated on the receiving state's territory. Which, in the strictest sense, means that if the UK (on whose territory the accomodation is situated) demands that a person for whom they have a warrant be handed over (which is in accordance to "laws and regulations") then, in the strictest sense, the embassy had better do that. Unless there's a higher good, a really urgent reason not to, such as if the person is under protection of asylum because he has to fear death or such.

Also, among an embassy's functions is protecting the interests of their citizens, and negotiating for them. Assange is a citizen of Ecuador. OK, fair enough. So they should do that, right?

Nowhere does it say that they have to do any of that, or that an embassy is required, or even allowed to intervene and prevent the lawful arrest of a criminal.

In practice, although they're not entitled to do it, embassies often still refuse to hand over one of their citizens, and they get away with it. It's tolerated because, hey, you don't want to upset another country by kicking in their embassy's door.
But that doesn't mean they must do that, if they don't want. In fact, they do not even need to allow anyone to enter or stay in the embassy at all, if they don't want to. They could as well just have kicked Assange out (instead of having UK police drag him out), that's perfectly within their rights.
Well, they didn't do that, they just said they didn't intend to protect him any longer, and they let the police take him. Unfair? Well maybe. Unlawful? No.

The Convention says that the sending country shall do the peacekeeping within the building, but nowhere does it say that the receiving country's police is generally not allowed to enter the embassy, or drag someone out. So, them doing that is perfectly lawful, too.

  • "the mission is accomodated on the receiving state's territory. Which...means that if the UK...demands that a person for whom they have a warrant be handed over...then, in the strictest sense, the embassy had better do that": I don't see this in the convention. To which article are you referring? As to the receiving country's police entering, it explicitly says that the receiving country's agents require the permission of the head of the mission to enter, which of course they had in this case.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 2:42
  • @phoog: Art 21 states that the accomodation is to happen on the receiving state's territory, it doesn't say any such thing as "becomes sending state's territory". It does say in Art 22 that agents of the rec state may not enter without permission, that's right. However, Art 41 has it that ppl with privileges (= agents of sending state) must comply with receiving state's laws and regulations. So... they'd arguably have to give permission to enter upon being presented a valid warrant, or they'd violate said laws (without consequence, having immunity).
    – Damon
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 15:08
  • Thing is, they could have refused to give permission even though they actually had to, but they didn't want to. For... whatever reason. Maybe because Assange did cause so much friction, maybe because of something that Wikileaks published and they didn't like, maybe in exchange for some dirty deal. We will never know. In any case, it's all mighty fine from the "is it legal?" point of view. No law prevents police from dragging someone out of an embassy and embassy staff watching.
    – Damon
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 15:10
  • "arguably have to give permission to enter upon being presented a valid warrant": it seems to me that the inviolability of the mission takes precedence over the warrant's grant of authorization to enter the premises and effect the arrest, even under the laws of the UK, in which the provisions of the Vienna Convention have been given effect. So I do not agree that they have any obligation under the UK's laws to facilitate the execution of an arrest warrant.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 16:29
  • And the question isn't whether there's a law prohibiting the arrest of someone in an embassy with the consent of the sending state; it is rather whether it was legal for the sending state to give consent.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 16:33

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .