You are here:


Embassy Confrontations and Diplomatic Asylum


Three-times Ambassador Charles Crawford on the Monkey Business of Diplomatic Asylum


People are hot on your trail. You need to escape, or at least to find a safe place to catch your breath. But where?

The idea of asylum goes back deep into history and across different cultures and religions. In medieval England, a person seeking asylum in a church was expected to confess sins, hand over weapons and accept the authority of the church concerned. A choice then had to be made: surrender to the authorities and face justice, or publicly confess guilt and go into exile.

These days, embassies have replaced churches as the setting for confrontations between rival legal orders and conceptions of fairness. Dull, even shabby, though they may look to passers-by, embassies are in fact Shrines of Otherness, magical places like the old wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where one walks through the door and enters a new world run to different rules.

The problem? While you are making the best of the hospitality of that magical world, the normal nasty world whence you came is drumming its impatient fingers on the table waiting for you to come back out again. Which, sooner or later, you will be obliged to do.

It can often be much later than sooner. The world record for someone staying inside an embassy – to the vexation of the host government – is 15 years, set by fiercely anti-communist Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty. In 1956 in Hungary he was freed from prison during the brief pro-democracy revolution, but when Soviet forces invaded the country a few days later, he sought sanctuary in the United States Embassy. There he stayed until 1971, when he was allowed to leave the country under Ostpolitik, never to return.

People who seek refuge in embassies fall into two broad categories: those who enter nicely, and perhaps even are welcomed; and everyone else.

The latter category creates welcome excitement for the bored diplomats snoozing inside. Embassies in Cuba have seen vivid episodes.

In 1994, the Castro regime was tottering after the collapse of the Soviet Union and thousands of Cubans tried to escape. Over 100,000 Cubans forced their way into the Belgian Embassy in Havana, threatening to burn themselves alive rather than return to Cuba’s ‘hell on earth.’ The protest petered out.

Later, in 2002, a group of young Cubans commandeered a bus and crashed through the gates of the Mexican Embassy in Havana, hoping to be allowed to get away from Castro’s communism. The Mexican authorities were unimpressed, inviting the Cuban authorities to enter the Embassy to take them away.

It’s not all one-way traffic from Cuba. There are people (admittedly not many) who think they would be better off there than where they are. In 2000, two Basque separatists jumped over the fence of the Cuban Embassy in Madrid and sought asylum.

Asia too has seen this sort of thing. In 2004, some 40 energetic North Koreans scaled the spiked fences of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing and demanded asylum. And this year a group of North Koreans entered the Danish Embassy in Vietnam to seek asylum. This one worked – they were allowed to leave and make their way to Seoul.

This brings out the fact that there are two basic ‘invasion’ scenarios. Those where the people concerned are invading an embassy situated in their own country to try to escape (the two Havana examples above). And those where the invaders are in another country and enter a passing embassy as a way to get to somewhere else. In this latter case, both the embassy and the host government will be pleased to see the invaders leave the country, one way or the other: problem (for them) solved.

The former case is problematic though. It pits the embassy concerned against the host authorities in a way that is embarrassing for both. The host authorities have to face the disagreeable fact that some of its own citizens are so revolted by circumstances in their own country that they entreat another country to help them get out. The embassy involved is likewise torn. The idea that it is seen locally as a source of freedom and succour may be flattering but, on the other hand, relations with the host country have to go on.

This was brought out sharply by the mass demonstrations in Iran this year protesting against the rigged election results. With varying intensity, different European and other embassies in Tehran were saying that the Iranian elections had not, cough, quite met best standards of freeness and fairness. Yet they also had to make clear to the Iranian masses that in practice they would not open their doors to Iranians wanting to escape persecution.

A Swedish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman summed it up: Sweden ‘cannot grant asylum on embassy territory…if that decision was to be taken, it would mark a very strong gesture with regard to the Iranian government’.

Which, translated into normal language, is roughly this: ‘Sorry, massed Iranian chaps and chapesses. We do like and support you. Honest. But in this one you’re on your own. Good luck!’

Which sounds harsh, and is harsh, but has to be right. Since envoys were invented millions of years ago, the whole point has been to allow one leadership to keep open lines of private communication with another. If this special mechanism for such discreet top level communication is held hostage by anyone who has a grievance, however justified, a disruptive mess of no real use to either side ensues.

That is clear enough. Yet disrespectful invasions continue, human and inhuman alike, sometimes with ruinously malodorous consequences. In 2005, the Indian Embassy in Nepal was invaded by dozens of monkeys who destroyed equipment and gleefully defecated in offices until local zoo experts rounded them up.

My own experience of embassy sit-ins has but one episode, in South Africa in the late 1980s. As the apartheid regime staggered to its end, some small groups of ANC supporters took it upon themselves to enter embassies to make high-profile political demands.

There I was as First Secretary at the Embassy building in Cape Town when a sensational call came from our Embassy in Pretoria where these unwelcome visitors were noisily ensconced in the Embassy reception waiting room. ‘What should we do?’ asked Pretoria.

I loped down to the Ambassador’s office to pass on the glad tidings and ask for orders. The air sizzled for a few minutes with some of the most awesomely rude words ever to issue from pursed diplomatic lips. They amounted to a clear instruction to our people in Pretoria to ask the visitors to go away, it being made 200 per cent clear that while they were in the Embassy they would get nothing whatsoever by way of telephone calls, food, water or lavatorial facilities.

Brutal? Callous? Unfeeling?

All of the above, and more. But also successful. After an increasingly uncomfortable few hours, they left.

What about the other situation? Where the person seeking asylum or other relief is in effect welcomed?

This theme features in The Hiketeia, a graphic novel turning on the moral responsibilities of asylum. A mysterious young woman arrives at the Themiscyran embassy and seeks asylum under hiketeia, a ritual of the ancient Greeks involving mutual obligations of supplication and protection. Princess Diana (aka Wonder Woman) uneasily accepts, only to find herself dragged into a dark struggle of vengeance and justice – and a fierce battle with Batman.

Back in our world, it might suit a government as represented locally by its embassy to make a political point by accepting the newcomer, even if the host authorities are unimpressed – as the US Embassy did in hosting Cardinal Mindszenty for so long.

One excellent case was the peregrinating disgraced East German communist leader, Erich Honecker. Notorious for his unwavering confidence in Marxism even as it crashed around him in 1989 – ‘the Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not yet removed’– he ended up in Moscow after East Germany collapsed in 1989, only to find the Soviet Union too collapsing.

With the German authorities calling for him to return home to answer for communist crimes, he fled to the Embassy of Chile where he knew the Ambassador. After months of undignified tomfoolery, he was finally sent back to Germany by the Russian authorities to face trial, but then was allowed to travel to Chile to die as his health failed.

Another striking example of a political leader fleeing to an embassy in his own country involved Anwar Ibrahim, who in 2008 briefly took refuge in the Turkish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to avoid trial for alleged sodomy. He emerged after the government gave assurances as to his personal safety. His turbulent legal and political battles rumble on.

None of these dramas can compete with the unique case of Manuel Zelaya, the former President of Honduras ousted from power this year – either illegally or legally, depending on who’s talking.

After some time in vociferous exile, he returned to Honduras and entered the Embassy of Brazil in Tegucigalpa to try to negotiate a return to power. Forces loyal to his successor Robert Micheletti made ingenious attempts to make his life there uncomfortable, including playing loud marching music and pig grunts. The Brazilian government was left in the unedifying position of supporting Mr Zelaya’s general cause but (presumably) being unimpressed that he commandeered their Embassy in the process.

One for the Hondurans to sort out, methinks, with or without Wonder Woman. But whatever the final political outcome, the diplomatic precedents set in Tegucigalpa this year have been majestic indeed.