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Can the British Government Just Enter the Ecuadorian Embassy Whenever It Wants?

Earlier today, the Ecuadorian government granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sex crimes. The only problem: Assange is not actually in Ecuador, but rather is holed-up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Now the UK Foreign office is saying that it has the power to go inside the embassy—breaking the embassy’s diplomatic immunity—to extradite Assange to Sweden.

But do hosting governments actually have the right to enter embassies without permission? The answer, it seems, is that most countries—including the United States—do not have that right, but for the British government, things are slightly more complicated.

The principle of diplomatic immunity as applied to embassies was established by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which clearly states that diplomatic missions are inviolable. Generally, that is taken to mean that the authorities of a state where an embassy is located cannot enter unless they are asked in.

But while the British government would be breaking international law by going inside the Ecuadorian embassy to extradite Assange, the government isn't necessarily wrong to say that it would be in keeping with its own domestic laws. In 1987, the UK passed the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act to help give the government power when dealing with the abuses of diplomatic or consular premises.

The law was passed in the wake of the 1984 shooting of a British police officer at a protest outside the Libyan embassy. After the incident, the government found itself powerless to determine whether the perpetrator fired the shots from inside the embassy. The act, according to the Law Society Gazette of UK, was implemented without the amendment of the Vienna Convention, but it allows it “to remove diplomatic status from premises which are being misused.”

The United States, however, has no such law on the books, according to John R. Crook, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a former lawyer for the State Department. Thus, there’s no question in Washington that the Vienna Convention is the law of the land.

Indeed, that may explain why the United States has itself been especially active in offering asylum to others; in April, the United States famously granted temporary asylum to Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in its embassy in Beijing. “Although some people might look at this and say it’s a wonderful thing, that Julian Assange might be shielded and protected, those who might disagree with this need to realize that asylum has been granted in many instances, from Mr. Guangcheng to Cardinal Menzetti,” Crook says. “I think it’s a take a deep breath and go slow kind of situation.”

Kal Raustiala, professor of law and director of UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, said breaking the international agreement of the Vienna Convention could have implications that reach beyond London and Assange. "The inviobility of embassies is grounded in a principle of reciprocity...every state has embassies around the world,” he told me.

So, if the British government does enter the Ecuadorian premises, it may not have to fear repercussions in British courts, but it should probably prepare for international diplomatic blowback.