The Cable

State Department: The U.S. does not recognize the concept of ‘diplomatic asylum’

Siding with the Brits in their escalating feud with Ecuador about the status of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the State Department declared today that the United States does not believe in the concept of ‘diplomatic asylum' as a matter of international law.

Ecuador dragged Britain into an emergency meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States Friday at OAS headquarters in Washington, calling for a foreign ministers' meeting following the British threat to go into the Ecuadoran embassy in London and get Assange, who is wanted for questioning in connection with sexual assault charges in Sweden.

Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday, but today the State Department said the United States doesn't agree that such a thing exists.

"The United States is not a party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law," the office of Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a Friday statement. "We believe this is a bilateral issue between Ecuador and the United Kingdom and that the OAS has no role to play in this matter."

That statement is a shift from the stance the State Department took yesterday, when Nuland said that Washington would stay out of the dispute and that the American position was that the Brits were making decisions based on British, not international law.

"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," Nuland said Thursday. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we're not planning to interject ourselves."

The United States can only formally grant asylum to political figures once they actually are on U.S. soil, as dictated by the Refugee Act of 1980. But the U.S. has a long record of protecting political targets inside U.S. embassy complexes, most recently with Chinese blind dissident Chen Guangcheng last December.

That might seem like a distinction without a difference to many. However, Chen never sought or was granted asylum; he simply asked to study in the United States and the Chinese government eventually assented.

In 1989, the U.S. granted "temporary refuge" to Feng Lizhi, a leader of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, who fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and stayed there for 384 days before Chinese authorities allowed him to go to the United States, but officially only for "medical treatment."

Joseph Stalin's daughter Svetlana sought refuge in 1967 via the U.S. Embassy in India and was eventually granted U.S. citizenship.

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