?Caribbean countries sandwiched by a challenging hemispheric divide between the United States and leading Latin American states appeared to find convenient middle ground when the 34-member Organisation of American States (OAS) reached agreement Friday on the Ecuador/ UK standoff over Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange.
Armed with a declaration arising out of last week's meeting of the "Political Council" of the Venezuelan President, the Hugo Chavez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas (ALBA), there was an expectation that Caribbean members Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines, together with ALBA-aspirant St Lucia, would have toed a heavy, recalcitrant line.
The ALBA declaration of August 18 pointedly identifies "the threat" made by the UK including "the possibility of improper entry into diplomatic premises of Ecuador in London in order to arrest Julian Assange." The Wikileaks publisher is currently holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London enjoying "diplomatic asylum" but no "free passage" permitting him to leave the country. He faces extradition to Sweden for questioning related to rape and molestation allegations.
The ALBA declaration said an August 15 diplomatic aide-memoire from the UK on the matter at the height of the standoff at Ecuador's London embassy constituted "an act of intimidation and a violation of the territorial integrity of the Republic of Ecuador."
"You should be aware that there is a basis in law in the UK (the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987) that would permit us to take steps to arrest Mr Assange within the current premises of the embassy," the UK aide-memoire had asserted. "We sincerely hope that such a point is not reached, but if you cannot resolve the presence of Mr Assange on your premises, that route is open to us."
A communiqué issued by the UK in time for Friday's OAS ministerial consultations, however, claimed that "at no time was any threat made against the Embassy of Ecuador." "The Foreign and Commonwealth Office emphasises that the respect for, and compliance with, international law is at the heart of the conduct of the foreign policy of the United Kingdom," the communiqué says.
Friday's debate devoted some considerable time to the stated intentions of the UK government following the announcement that "diplomatic asylum" had been granted to the controversial online publisher. The word "threat" had originally been a part of a draft resolution circulated to OAS member states by Ecuador and several diplomats and foreign ministers made reference to behind-the-scenes deliberations on the document with particular emphasis on the combative language.
The ALBA declaration, which was an apparent reference resource for several Caribbean Community (Caricom) states, had gone as far as saying: "We warn the Government of the United Kingdom and Great Britain about the grave consequences that would be triggered throughout the world in the event of direct aggression against the territorial immunity of the Republic of Ecuador in London."
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), of which Caricom members Suriname and Guyana are members, also on August 19 issued a seven-point declaration in which the group reiterated "the validity of institutions of asylum and refuge to protect the human rights of persons who consider that their lives or physical integrity are endangered."
The UK has, however, contended while it recognised that Ecuador is party to the Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum of 1954 which permits subscribing nations to grant diplomatic asylum in certain circumstances, "the United Kingdom is not party to that Convention and there is no legal basis for the United Kingdom to meet the request of the Government of Ecuador...to grant safe passage for Mr Assange out of the United Kingdom."
Against the backdrop of such arguments, the OAS Permanent Council agreed Friday that the best course of action was to promote more conciliatory bilateral discussions between Ecuador and the UK. It was a line proposed by Trinidad and Tobago early in the proceedings. It had, however, joined with the US and Canada in initially rejecting a resolution to debate the issue suggesting the standoff was a matter for bilateral negotiation.
The final version of the resolution adopted by hemispheric governments, reportedly with the exception of Canada, urges "the Governments of Ecuador and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to continue to engage in dialogue in order to settle their current differences in accordance with international law, taking into account the statements made recently by authorities of both governments." It expresses solidarity with Ecuador but drops the sharp tone of the ALBA and UNASUR declarations endorsed by a significant number of OAS states, including several Caricom member countries, only days before.