Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

It started with …. a letter

Published on 21 August 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

To understand why the UK’s handling of the Assange asylum case has provoked such a strong reaction in the global public, we need to go back in time – way back. Back to the point where our predecessors first realized that it was better to hear the message than to eat the messenger (see the image). This was the moment when diplomacy, one of the oldest professions in the world, first emerged.

It started with …. a letter

Since those early days of diplomacy, the protection of the messenger – in this case, the Ecuadorian embassy – has been one of the highest social values. In Ancient Greece, the god Hermes took care of diplomats.  Almost every society in human history has had some rules and practices for the protection of foreign envoys (see: evolution of diplomatic privileges and immunities).

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations – one of the most solid and widely observed international treaties today – put in legal form what people had been doing for centuries. Another reason for high levels of adherence to the Vienna Convention and diplomatic law in general is reciprocity. The mistreatment of a foreign diplomat could easily backfire on our diplomats abroad.  Big powers with extensive diplomatic networks, such as the UK, have always been strong supporters of diplomatic law. Challenges to privileges and immunities, such as the Teheran hostage crisis, usually come from other countries.

All this makes the UK move in the Assange asylum case even more puzzling. On careful analysis, though, the UK did not challenge diplomatic law.  The 1987 Act has many safeguard mechanisms aimed at observing the Vienna Convention. But the UK’s letter to Ecuador did trigger a completely different reaction than expected (to put a diplomatic pressure on Ecuador), creating a global echo that the UK was ready to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in order to get hold of Assange. This letter will go down in history as a  failure of UK public diplomacy, coming, paradoxically, only a few days after the great Olympic success of UK public diplomacy and society as a whole!

Although it is clear that the UK miscommunicated with its letter to Ecuador, the good news is that this incident triggered such a strong reaction worldwide. Like our predecessors, we still attach high importance to the protection of messengers who can increase the chances for a peaceful solution to conflicts.

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