EXPLAINER

ICJ to hear Mexico’s dispute with Ecuador: All you need to know

Mexico and Ecuador have brought complaints against each other at the international court, escalating a diplomatic feud.

Ecuadorian police break into the Mexican embassy in Quito, Ecuador, on Friday, April 5 [David Bustillos/AP Photo]Published On 30 Apr 202430 Apr 2024

It is the latest escalation in a long-simmering diplomatic feud: On Tuesday and Wednesday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is set to hear a case brought by Mexico against Ecuador over alleged violations of international law.

At the heart of the case lies the controversial decision to storm Mexico’s Embassy in Quito.

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On April 5, Ecuadorian police scaled the embassy’s fence and burst through its doors to arrest Jorge Glas, a former vice president twice convicted of corruption.

He had been sheltering in Mexico’s Embassy since December. His arrest, however, came just hours after Mexico offered him political asylum — and warned Ecuador against any intervention in that process.

The police raid on Mexico’s Embassy prompted widespread outcry, with many experts seeing it as a violation of international law, which protects embassies from the interference of local law enforcement.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador also reacted with indignation over the raid, condemning it as a violation of Mexican sovereignty.

The ICJ will weigh his country’s demand that Ecuador be suspended from the United Nations (UN). The ICJ is one of six principle bodies within the UN, in charge of adjudicating international disputes.

On Monday, however, Ecuador responded in kind, filing a complaint against Mexico at the ICJ for granting asylum to the disgraced former vice president.

What is the nature of the dispute? What are both countries hoping to achieve with their ICJ complaints? And what can this tell us about political schisms in Latin America? Al Jazeera breaks down the controversy.

What does Mexico’s complaint say?

The hearings on both Tuesday and Wednesday will start at 10am local time (8am GMT) and run for two hours. Lopez Obrador announced on April 11 that his country had filed a complaint with the ICJ, alleging that Ecuador had “violated Mexico’s rights under customary and conventional international law, as well as fundamental principles upon which the international legal system is based”.

That complaint urges the ICJ to suspend Ecuador’s membership in the United Nations — at least until the country issues “a public apology recognising its violations to the fundamental principles and norms of international law”.

Laws like the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations establish that embassies and consulates are protected spaces. “The premises of the mission shall be inviolable,” the convention reads, unless the head of the consulate or embassy consents for local law enforcement to enter.

Mexico filed its case at the ICJ shortly after severing diplomatic relations with Ecuador on April 6, a day after the raid.

It called the storming of the embassy a “forcible break-in” and denounced the treatment of its embassy staff, one of whom allegedly had a gun pointed at him.

What has Ecuador accused Mexico of in return?

In a press release on April 29, the ICJ said that Ecuador had brought proceedings against Mexico for allegedly acting “to shield Mr Glas from enforcement by Ecuador of its criminal law”.

Glas had been staying in Mexico’s Embassy since around December 17, 2023. He had been twice convicted on charges related to bribery and the misuse of public funds. In 2017, he was sentenced to six years in prison and in 2021, he received another sentence of eight years.

Ecuador has called Glas’s stay at the Mexican Embassy a “blatant misuse of the premises of its diplomatic mission”. It also describes Mexico’s offer of political asylum as unlawful.

In addition, the complaint accuses Mexico of interfering in Ecuador’s domestic affairs.

In the days leading up to the embassy raid, Mexican President Lopez Obrador used his daily press briefing to comment on Ecuador’s 2023 presidential election, questioning whether the centre-right candidate Daniel Noboa would have won if violence had not marred the race.

“Ecuador considered these statements unacceptable and an interference by Mexico in its internal affairs,” Monday’s court filings indicate.

Noboa is now president of Ecuador and has defended his country’s decision to raid the embassy.

Who is Jorge Glas, the figure at the centre of the controversy?

Glas served as vice president in the administration of former President Rafael Correa, a powerful left-wing figure in Ecuadorian politics.

But his tenure, which started in 2013, came to an end under Correa’s successor, Lenin Moreno. In 2017, less than three months into Moreno’s term, he stripped Glas of his duties as vice president.

Glas later claimed on social media that he was being punished for voicing his opinions.

However, later that same year, Glas was sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement in the Odebrecht scandal, a corruption case that enveloped politicians across the region. Leaders like Glas were accused of accepting bribes in exchange for awarding Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company, favourable contracts.

A second bribery-related conviction came in 2021.

What have the Ecuadorian courts said?

Glas’s attempt to seek refuge in the Mexican embassy has put Ecuador’s legal system in a pickle.

On December 18, a day after Glas entered the embassy, an Ecuadorian prosecutor alleged that a drug trafficker paid bribes to high-ranking legal officials to ensure the former vice president could be released on parole.

Ecuadorian President Noboa had been in office less than a month at that time. But his government warned Mexico against granting Glas asylum.

Shortly after, on December 28, an Ecuadorian judge ruled that Glas had not abided by the requirements of his parole and ordered his arrest.

Noboa said in a statement before the April embassy raid that his government would not allow “any criminal to stay free”.

A three-member Ecuadorian tribunal would nevertheless declare the raid illegal on April 13.

Still, it upheld Glas’s imprisonment: Since the embassy raid, he has been imprisoned in the city of Guayaquil.

Why did Mexico grant Glas asylum?

The Mexican government announced in a press release on April 5 that it had decided to grant Glas political asylum.

It asked Ecuador to offer “the respective safe passage, in accordance with the 1954 Diplomatic Asylum Convention, an international treaty to which Mexico and Ecuador are party states”.

Asylum is a legal category granted to individuals fleeing persecution. While Mexico has long offered refuge to political figures, experts say that Lopez Obrador has used asylum as a tool to show support for embattled political allies across the region, particularly on the left.

For example, Lopez Obrador offered asylum last year to former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, who was impeached after attempting to dissolve the country’s Congress, a move widely viewed as illegal.

In response, Peru recalled its ambassador to Mexico, and its Congress declared Lopez Obrador a persona non grata.

Carlos Bravo Regidor, a writer and political analyst based in Mexico City, told Al Jazeera that Lopez Obrador has used Mexico’s tradition as a place of asylum for personal gains.

“I think Lopez Obrador is invoking the tradition to use it as a way to help his ideological or political friends in Latin America, but he’s really devaluing that tradition in terms of the profile of the people he’s granting asylum to,” he said.

How have other countries responded to the raid?

Ecuador’s actions have been roundly condemned by governments and organisations in Latin America and the United States.

In a statement following the raid, the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body, expressed “solidarity with those who were victims of the inappropriate actions that affected the Mexican Embassy in Ecuador”. It also called on Mexico and Ecuador to “resolve their differences” through actions aligned with international law.

Countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela also condemned the raid. Nicaragua also ended its diplomatic relations with Ecuador, in solidarity with Mexico.

The US State Department issued a statement saying that it “takes very seriously the obligation of host countries under international law to respect the inviolability of diplomatic missions”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies