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Blog Post | The storming of the Mexican Embassy in Ecuador: Inviolability and Political Asylum

On Friday, April 5, the Ecuadorian police stormed the Mexican Embassy in Quito to arrest former Ecuadorian vice president Jorge Glas Espinel.

Glas was removed from office in 2017 and subsequently convicted in two cases - one for bribery and another related to the so-called "Odebrecht scandal" - and released from prison in November 2023. However, Ecuador continued its investigations and issued an arrest warrant against him in December, leading Glas to seek asylum in the Mexican Embassy.

While Glass safe conduct was being dealt with, the Ecuadorian government declared Mexican ambassador Raquel Serur persona non grata and ordered her expulsion in response to controversial statements by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In principle, this could be interpreted as a violation of the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs.

Mexico granted asylum status and requested the corresponding authorization for Glas to leave Ecuador. The Noboa government strongly rejected this asylum, refused to grant safe conduct (to leave the country) to Glas and considered that Mexico was abusing its diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Then Ecuador forcefully entered the Mexican Embassy with armored cars and masked agents. The head of the Chancellery and Political Affairs of the Embassy, Roberto Canseco, was inside the building when the police stormed in and tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the entry. As a result, he was beaten and threatened with firearms. The Ecuadorian Foreign Minister, Gabriela Sommerfeld, justified the assault on the Embassy by saying that "for Ecuador, no criminal can be considered a political refugee" and added that she would not grant any safe conduct because "according to international conventions (Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum, 1954), it is not lawful to grant asylum to convicted individuals".

Diplomatic asylum is a practice born in Latin America, based on the protection exercised by the accrediting State regarding a person requested by the receiving State. The inviolability of the Embassy (Art. 22 VCDR) prevents their detention and, theoretically, facilitates obtaining the safe conduct necessary for the individual to leave the country.

Although asylum is a Latin American practice not accepted in the rest of the world, the inviolability of diplomatic missions is a cornerstone of international law and a fundamental requirement for peaceful relations between States, recognized universally and enshrined in the VCDR. Precisely because of the application of this norm, Julian Assange was housed for seven years in the headquarters of the Ecuadorian Embassy in the United Kingdom, without this country granting safe conduct, but also without entering the diplomatic mission. The incursion of the Ecuadorian police into the Mexican Embassy constitutes a flagrant violation of international law (although not of Mexico's sovereignty, as erroneously alleged by the president of this country).

Like any other relationship, diplomatic relations depend on the impetus that the parties want to give them. And, as in any relationship, short circuits can occur. When a diplomatic crisis occurs, diplomatic law provides for graduated measures that States can take to alleviate the situation, such as calling ambassadors for consultations or summoning ambassadors. In cases of dispute, it is common for the accrediting State to withdraw the head of mission as a sign of discontent while allowing the Embassy to operate more or less regularly under a chargé d'affaires, a.i., with limited powers. However, in an extreme and more serious situation, a State can take the unilateral decision to break diplomatic ties, as it is an act of discretionary competence, unlike the establishment of diplomatic relations.

This was the decision taken by the Mexican government, which has also required that the rules of the inter-American asylum treaties be respected and that permission be granted for the former Ecuadorian vice president to leave the country. On April 11, Mexico instituted proceedings against Ecuador before the International Court of Justice with regard to a dispute relating to “legal questions concerning the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means and diplomatic relations, and the inviolability of a diplomatic mission”. It also requested the Court to indicate provisional measures. Public hearings on provisional measures will be held on April 30 and May 1, 2024.

Furthermore, Mexico denounced these violations of international law by Ecuador before relevant regional (OAS, CELAC) and international bodies (UNGA, CCPR). The action taken by the Ecuadorian government constituted a severe precedent and was vigorously condemned by several States and International Organizations, including the OAS, UN and EU) as a flagrant violation of universally accepted international norms. The OAS Permanent Council adopted a resolution that strongly condemns “the intrusion into the premises of the Embassy of Mexico in Ecuador and the acts of violence against the well-being and dignity of the diplomatic personnel of the mission” and reaffirms “the obligation of all States to ensure respect for the privileges and immunities of diplomatic missions and the principle of inviolability, in accordance with international law”. CELAC strongly condemned the Ecuadorian intrusion into the Mexican embassy and is considering possible sanctions against Ecuador. In solidarity with Mexico, Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with Ecuador and announced the closure of its embassy in Quito and two consulates.

The crisis between Mexico and Ecuador could affect the political stability of Ecuador, whose internal tensions could intensify. It has a significant diplomatic and political impact at the regional level, as it affects the relations between both States as well as their image in the region. On the other hand, other States may be tempted to imitate Ecuador and challenge the long-standing right of asylum in Latin America. Therefore, it is essential to closely monitor the evolution of the crisis and its possible repercussions in the region.

Ricardo Arredondo is Adjunct Professor of International Studies (Simon Fraser University). Personal website.

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