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Ecuador has accepted the asylum request of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, putting the United Kingdom in a difficult bind. Can it revoke Ecuador's diplomatic status so it can arrest a fugitive hiding inside their embassy? More importantly, should they?

Protesters gathered outside the embassy this morning — some in support of Assange and Wikileaks; but many merely to support the idea that Ecuador's sovereignty should not be messed with. They were also waiting with members of the press for the formal decision by Ecuadorean foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, who has just announced that Assange will be granted asylum in their country. Patiño stated that Assange's fears of persecution are real and that once in Sweden he could extradited to the United States where he "would not have a fair trial." and "his human rights would not be respected."

However, getting Assange to Ecuador means going through Britain, which could set off a major diplomatic incident with implications going far beyond London and Quito

The British government now has a tricky line to walk. After months of legal fights over the extradition Assange to Sweden to face sexual assault charges — which the U.K. says it is legally obligated to uphold — they can't just let Assange walk out the door, take a cab to Heathrow, and leave the country. At the same time, revoking the diplomatic status of a nation's embassy — a friendly nation that hasn't really done anything wrong — is a very drastic move that would send shockwaves throughout the diplomatic world. They police can't invade another embassy, but they government can declare that it no longer is an embassy, by revoking the diplomatic status of the building and everyone in it. 

The British government would be invoking the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, which was passed in 1987, partly in response to the shooting of a British police officer by someone inside the Libyan embassy  during a protest in front of the building. That shooting led to a 11-day siege of the embassy and the law was seen as a future tool to combat other countries that support terrorism (and actively use their diplomatic protection to do it.) Even if they did chose to pursue that path, there would be months more legally wrangling in Parliament and courts before this is settled and they would have to prove the embassy was abusing or avoiding its diplomatic functions.

However, Ecuador is not Libya under Muammar Qaddafi. If the British were revoke an embassy's privileges without an airtight reason, there would be nothing to stop other countries from doing the same thing to British diplomats or any other nation they might have a beef with. (Obviously, the American government might have some concerns about that, too.) The principle behind an embassy's sovereignty is a cherished and long-standing one and not easily messed with. So what we have now is a "standoff" between two principles of international law. This story is far from over.

UPDATE 12:20 P.M.: UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has reiterated his country's commitment to honoring the extradition, saying that they will not allow Assange to leave the country, nor do they recognize the principle of "diplomatic asylum." Hague also reiterated that the sexual assault charges are independent of his Wikileaks work and are not political. However, no 'raid' is planned on the Ecuadorean embassy.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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