How Ecuador Shredded Norms Around Asylum and Refugees

As soon as I heard the news that Ecuadorian police had stormed the Mexican Embassy in Quito, arresting former vice president Jorge Glas, who had just been given diplomatic asylum, I was transported 50 years back in time. I myself had managed to take refuge in the Argentine Embassy in Santiago, Chile, to escape being killed by the Pinochet dictatorship after the coup in September 1973.

Just like Glas now and countless Latin Americans in the past, I was certain an embassy was an inviolable refuge. A country’s embassy is customarily considered a sovereign territory. In Latin America during the bloody 19th century, elites who lost power because of civil wars or coups often sought refuge in foreign legations. This practice was respected by their victorious adversaries, who understood that tomorrow they could be the ones knocking on the doors of an embassy on their way to an uncertain exile.

The 20th century institutionalized refugee protections in a series of agreements and laws, not only at the inter-American level (the Organization of American States in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1954) but also in broader treaties (the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1961 Vienna Convention). So valuable were those accords that even a regime such as Augusto Pinochet’s, which violated the human rights of Chileans with frightful abandon – disappearing, executing, torturing and harassing supporters of ousted president Salvador Allende – accepted these norms. The military authorities did so even if it meant that their enemies could survive the coup and one day return to the country and lead the resistance.

It was not easy to access an embassy such as the Argentine one I entered in 1973. Dodging the ferociously armed police who patrolled the surrounding area was already a feat. One afternoon, as I was walking through the embassy’s garden, a backpack and a sleeping bag fell at my feet, thrown from the other side of the wall. Those belongings were not, alas, joined by their unfortunate owner. I saw the fingers of both his hands clinging to that wall, but only for an instant; a succession of shots fired by Chilean troops ended that escape attempt. Wounded, dead, hauled off for interrogation? Who knows?

Many times during the endless months I spent in the embassy waiting for safe conduct to leave Chile, I conjured up the possibility that Pinochet’s secret police would try to infiltrate someone among us – to obtain information or, worse, to assassinate the most prominent dissidents. My fears never materialized. A thousand individuals crammed into that embassy and so many more in other diplomatic premises scattered around the city managed to leave Chile thanks to the right of asylum.

The same right has now been abrogated by the inept government of Daniel Noboa in Ecuador. His unprecedented act has already had dramatic consequences. Mexico has broken off relations with Ecuador, and its condemnation has been joined by Latin American nations from both the left (Brazil, Colombia, Chile) and the right (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay).

Without the minimum confidence given by certain international agreements to which governments of different political persuasions adhere, it is difficult to resolve the critical tensions and conflicts that inexorably arise in an era as unstable as the one we are living in. And the list of pressing problems we need to tackle together is daunting – drug trafficking, widespread crime, migration and climate change are but a few that spring to mind.

Beyond the practical consequences, what saddens me most is how Noboa’s brazen act undermines the dream of the great Latin American patria–that project of a common homeland proclaimed by Simón Bolívar, José Martí and Allende–as well as by Antonio José de Sucre, the great hero of Ecuador’s struggle for independence. This need for solidarity among dispersed nations – all of them suffering from the plagues of fratricidal violence and frustrated development–lies at the core of Latin American identity. This solidarity was on display, in fact, in the Argentine Embassy in Santiago in 1973. Along with Chileans, citizens from all over the continent who were fleeing their own countries had sought refuge there. During our prolonged cohabitation, we forged a community out of diversity, caring for one another, and surviving together, in the hope that someday our dispersed nations would also learn how to coexist.

It is inevitable, it depresses me to admit, that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, other men and women will feel the need to flee a regime in power. It is imperative that when they are welcomed into a foreign embassy, they are certain their safety is guaranteed. As a survivor myself, it pains me to think they might suffer the excruciating fate of that stranger who threw his backpack and sleeping bag over the wall of the Argentine Embassy so many decades ago.

It is essential that this deranged action of Noboa not go unpunished. An example must be set so that no other ruler will dare follow his example.

Or are we prepared to let basic international norms that protect the vulnerable be trampled upon so wantonly?

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Post.