William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, has said he wants to make Latin America a priority of British diplomacy. The UK’s approach to Julian Assange suggests otherwise.
Mr Assange, today granted political asylum by Ecuador, remains holed up in its embassy in London. But the foreign office has said that, under UK law, British police can storm the Ecuadorean embassy and remove him. Such action would presumably form part of its “binding obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden,” as a foreign office spokesperson put it.
Bad move. For one, the law is unnecessary. As Ecuador acknowledges, rather than raid the embassy British police could simply arrest Assange as soon as he stepped out onto London’s street, en route to political asylum in Quito. (He faces charges of skipping bail.) The law is also politically flat-footed. It casts the UK as a heavy-handed western country that considers itself above international norms (especially given the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the sacking of the British embassy in Iran). It thereby tacitly confirms the worst kinds of conspiracy theories swirling around Assange. And it allows Ecuador to play the plucky David standing up to the bullying colonial Goliath of Britain. The pose resonates throughout the region, and has similarly been struck by Argentina in its arguments with the UK over the Falklands. Expect President Cristina Fernandez to start singing that refrain again soon.