Often not studied by the law student, but only encountered in niche areas of professional legal practice, Public International Law (PIL) can actually be very interesting.
Essentially, PIL concerns international law, diplomatic treaties, and all matters of legal matters that can arise between nations or across borders. The PIL expert has to deal with matters of international relations, and diplomatic conundrums.
On the plus side, PIL and related diplomacy often avoids conflict, and peacefully (and legally) soothes ruffled diplomatic feathers with a mass of legal jargon and legal issues. Such diplomacy, talks, agreements and application of PIL can reap great success; for example, August saw diplomatic relations and missions established between Cuba and the United States, and between Iran and the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, however, the niceties and finer details of PIL can be a headache for governments long after they have left office. Also, many nations can be accidentally dragged into a particular diplomatic mess by the application of the finer points of PIL.
The on-going saga of Australian Julian Assange is one such matter.
Whilst giving a lecture in Stockholm in 2010, Wikileaks co- founder Julian Assange was accused of sexual assault. The Åklagarmyndigheten (Sweden’s Office of Public Prosecutions) issued an arrest warrant, and has sought to question him prior to any further legal action being taken ever since.
Later that year, Mr Assange and his co- conspirators at Wikileaks released classified US diplomatic cables and other sensitive documents. The release was a sensation, with many governments still feeling the fallout. Ever since, there have been greater calls for government transparency, particularly regarding the intelligence and diplomatic services.
Mr Assange was not so fortunate. Hailed by some as a hero, and by others as a traitor, 2010 saw him tied up in legal and diplomatic proceedings as Sweden sought his extradition. Although surrendering himself to police initially in London, he has long protested that his extradition to Sweden could result in his further extradition to the US on much more serious charges.
2012 saw the end of the battles in the UK courts, with the Supreme Court ruling against him. Mr Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He was later granted diplomatic asylum in Ecuador on human rights grounds; ironic given Ecuador’s rocky and tenuous relations with human rights and rule of law domestically. However, the UK refused to grant him safe passage to Ecuador. He has remained in the Embassy premises for the last three years, guarded by the Metropolitan Police in a round the clock operation that has cost the UK taxpayer nearly £12m to date.
It must be noted that Australia over the years has had very little, if any, comment to make. Canberra has not been overly keen to rush to the assistance or to provide consular aid to one of their citizens.
As of August 2015, that problem shows no sign of going away. Or does it?
The Swedish statute of limitations has now come into play. The charges of sexual molestation, and an additional accusation of unlawful coercion, have now been dropped against Mr Assange. The Åklagarmyndigheten was given until August 18 2015 to question him under the statute of limitations; that time has now passed. Further charges (including rape) against Mr Assange still remain, which will expire in 2020.
Further, the UK government has issued a formal protest to Ecuador about the impasse in Kensington. In a supplementary statement, FCO Minister Hugo Swire said of the leadership in Quito that it “must recognise that its decision to harbour Mr Assange more than three years ago has prevented the proper course of justice… It is completely unacceptable that the British taxpayer has had to foot the bill for this abuse of diplomatic relations.” Abuse of diplomatic relations it may be, but diplomatic and political asylum has a long (if unwelcome) history, and is a key principle of PIL.
Throughout, Mr Assange has always protested his innocence, and stated that the charges are politically motivated. He has offered to be formally interviewed by Swedish prosecutors in Ecuadorian territory. However, Sweden has insisted that this Swedish legal matter, that these Swedish criminal interviews and investigations are carried out in Sweden. However, under pressure to advance the investigations, Swedish prosecutors earlier this year agreed to interview Mr Assange in London, in Ecuadorian territory. Despite that, there has been a breakdown between Ecuador and Sweden regarding questioning Mr Assange. Both sides blame the other for the diplomatic impasse.
According to Swedish law, Mr Assange has yet to be formally charged. Under Swedish law, a suspect has to be questioned prior to any charges being paid against them. In this case, though, due to the demands of diplomacy, and PIL, getting access to their suspect is a barrier.
Despite this diplomatic merry go round, diplomatic relations between the three nations remain cordial and friendly. History has shown, however, that some such issues can result in long term ill will between nations. The last two centuries has seen a great deal of ill will in Latin America over what was often perceived as heavy handed interference from the United States, for example- particularly in Cuba.
The matter has been on-going for three years. When Mr Assange first sought diplomatic asylum in Ecuador, David Cameron led a Coalition government, with Nick Clegg as his Deputy, and William Hague was the unfortunate Foreign Secretary the matter was referred to. 2015 sees Mr Cameron still as Prime Minister (without the baggage of a Coalition), and the matter passed on to the new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond. Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt was probably relieved to hand over the Assange affair in 2014 to the current Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom. Similarly, outgoing Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt was probably glad to leave this diplomatic issue in 2014 to his sucessor, Stefan Lofven. By contrast, Ecuador’s President has remained unchanged since 2005, being Rafael Correa, with Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino similarly still looking after the matter in Quito.
Governments come and go – but the situations and issues raised by the niceties of Public International Law will often outlast them, and be an unwelcome gift for new leaders.