What this means in practice is that once someone seeks refuge in an embassy, the foreign government often enters into negotiations with the host government about the fugitive's fate. In February, when the Chinese official Wang Lijun turned up at the American consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum and accusing Chinese leader Bo Xilai of corruption, he was eventually transferred to Chinese custody and has not been heard from since. This time around, it's unclear whether Chen Guangcheng, if he is indeed with American diplomats, is seeking asylum in the United States or simply a temporary safe haven from which to condemn his captors and pressure Beijing to guarantee his safety. Neither goal is assured and, either way, the episode will be a critical test for U.S.-Chinese relations.
During the Cold War, embassy defections played a critical role in diplomacy. Some of the defectors were spies such as KGB Maj. Vasili Mitrokhin, who walked into the U.S. embassy in Riga as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1992, bringing with him a treasure trove of intelligence secrets. In 1953, when the leftist government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who had ties to the regime, took refuge in the Argentine embassy before securing passage to Mexico, where he would eventually meet up with Fidel Castro.
On April 5, 1980, 750 Cubans gathered at the Peruvian embassy in Havana demanding political asylum. The next day, their numbers had swelled to 10,000. Recognizing the scale of the political crisis, the Castro regime authorized a boatlift of thousands of asylum seekers to the United States and other Latin American countries. And 1989 saw what became known as the "Prague Embassy Crisis," as hundreds of East Germans began jumping the walls into the West German embassy in Prague, demanding asylum. A tent city was set up in the embassy's courtyard to accommodate the asylum seekers, and eventually more than 20,000 people are thought to have made it to West Germany this way. Just 40 days after the West German government granted the Prague refugees asylum, the Berlin Wall fell.
For the last 50 years, foreign embassies in Beijing have been the most popular destination for North Korean refugees seeking to flee to South Korea or the west. In one of the largest defections, 25 asylum-seekers stormed their way into the Spanish embassy in 2002.
While governments have generally abided by the terms of the Vienna Convention, they have found ways to bend the rules at times. When ousted Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega took refuge from U.S. troops at the Vatican embassy in Managua in 1990, the Americans blasted rock music -- including Guns'n'Roses -- at the compound in an effort to force him out. Perhaps sick of the racket themselves, Vatican officials eventually gave Noriega his marching orders.
Thanks to Peter Spiro, professor of law at Temple University and blogger at Opinio Juris.