While I've covered numerous aspects of Wikileaks, I've shied almost entirely away from the arrest of Julian Assange and the extradition fight to have him sent to Sweden, as well as the questions involving asylum in Ecuador. For the most part, I considered those things to be outside the scope of what's normally interesting around here. Whether or not you think the claims of what he did in Sweden were legitimate or trumped up, it was wholly separate from what he did with Wikileaks. That said, with the news today that Ecuador has, in fact, granted asylum to Assange, there are a few tidbits that have made the story extra interesting.
First up, is the absolutely astounding and shocking news -- as released to the public by the Ecuadorian embassy -- that the UK literally threatened to enter the embassy in order to get Assange and ship him to Sweden:
"You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy. We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr Assange's presence in your premises, this is an open option for us."
If you don't follow diplomatic and embassy issues, this might not seem like a big deal, but it's huge. While it's mostly a myth that embassies are considered the sovereign territory of the countries they represent, under the Vienna Convention, the UK has agreed that such premises "shall be inviolable" and that its agents "may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission." The UK's very direct threat here s that it would ignore that international agreement just to get Assange. That the UK would be willing to take such an incredibly drastic step to extradite Assange seems completely disconnected from the nature of the accusations against him. It would also put UK diplomats at risk around the globe, as other countries would note that it did not respect the Vienna Convention, so why should they?
Then there's a deeply disturbing, but quite compelling, argument by Mark Weisbrot at The Guardian, that even if these things seem disconnected, it's pretty clear that the driving force behind all of this is the plan for the US to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act for his role in Wikileaks -- and this moment is particularly stunning. Historically, those who were being persecuted on human rights issues fled to the United States for asylum. Not the other way around. But here's a case where the exact opposite is true. And while many people have gotten past the point of believing that the US is a beacon of light on human rights issues, the fact that Assange had to take this action, combined with the UK's response, really acts as a distinct (and tremendously embarrassing) marker for a clear point in time in which the US turned from being a protector of human rights, to a persecutor against human rights.
The points raised by Weisbrot include the fact that Assange still hasn't actually been charged in Sweden. He notes that Swedish officials have been offered, multiple times, the opportunity to come to the UK to question him, and they've refused each time, including a recent offer from the Ecuadorian embassy to question him there:
We can infer that the Swedes have no legitimate reason for the extradition, since they were repeatedly offered the opportunity to question him in the UK, but rejected it, and have also refused to even put forth a reason for this refusal. A few weeks ago the Ecuadorian government offered to allow Assange to be questioned in its London embassy, where Assange has been residing since 19 June, but the Swedish government refused – again without offering a reason. This was an act of bad faith in the negotiating process that has taken place between governments to resolve the situation.
Former Stockholm chief district prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem also made it clear that the Swedish government had no legitimate reason to seek Assange's extradition when he testified that the decision of the Swedish government to extradite Assange is "unreasonable and unprofessional, as well as unfair and disproportionate", because he could be easily questioned in the UK.
I'm not willing to go quite that far, in that I'll grant the possibility that there is a legitimate reason for Assange to be extradited -- but the failure of the Swedish government to take easy steps to prove those legitimate reasons or to obtain the necessary evidence is concerning.
And that's where Weisbrot connects the US to the whole thing. While we've talked about UK-US extradition in other contexts, apparently Assange could not be extradited to the US from the UK based on any of the possible charges against him. But that wouldn't be true in Sweden. Which gives rise to plenty of reasons why Sweden and the UK might be under heavy diplomatic pressure to get Assange to Sweden -- even to the point of threatening to enter the embassy to get him. Weisbrot points out that there's plenty of evidence that the US is sitting on an indictment for Assange:
But, most importantly, the government of Ecuador agreed with Assange that he had a reasonable fear of a second extradition to the United States, and persecution here for his activities as a journalist. The evidence for this was strong. Some examples: an ongoing investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks in the US; evidence that an indictment had already been prepared; statements by important public officials such as Democratic senator Diane Feinstein that he should be prosecuted for espionage, which carries a potential death penalty or life imprisonment.
This, by itself, is quite troubling, as we've discussed in the past. No matter what you think of Assange (and, personally, I don't think too highly of his methods or his grandstanding), it's a massive stretch to think that he should even be subject to an Espionage Act claim. However, as we've detailed multiple times, the Obama administration has turned the Espionage Act from a law against spying into a law against whistleblowers who embarrass them. The administration has used the Espionage Act twice as many times as all other Presidents combined to go after journalists and whistleblowers. Even if you disagree with Assange's methods, or the way that Wikileaks has operated, this should concern you. What Wikileaks did was not "espionage."
This will have massive ramifications for US foreign policy on human rights issues.
Why is this case so significant? It is probably the first time that a citizen fleeing political persecution by the US has been granted political asylum by a democratic government seeking to uphold international human rights conventions. This is a pretty big deal, because for more than 60 years the US has portrayed itself as a proponent of human rights internationally – especially during the cold war. And many people have sought and received asylum in the US.
[...] Today, the US claims the legal right to indefinitely detain its citizens; the president can order the assassination of a citizen without so much as even a hearing; the government can spy on its citizens without a court order; and its officials are immune from prosecution for war crimes. It doesn't help that the US has less than 5% of the world's population but almost a quarter of its prison inmates, many of them victims of a "war on drugs" that is rapidly losing legitimacy in the rest of the world. Assange's successful pursuit of asylum from the US is another blow to Washington's international reputation. At the same time, it shows how important it is to have democratic governments that are independent of the US and – unlike Sweden and the UK – will not collaborate in the persecution of a journalist for the sake of expediency. Hopefully other governments will let the UK know that threats to invade another country's embassy put them outside the bounds of law-abiding nations.
Yes, others will claim that the US was never the beacon of human rights it set itself out to be. There are numerous examples of where the US has failed to live up to its own stated standards. But this case and all of the details around it seem to take things to a new level, and the idea that someone needs to seek asylum in Ecuador out of fear of being put to death for trying to increase transparency by releasing government records? That's going to wake more people up to these questions.
And even if we believe that the US is actually mostly good on human rights issues, these moves all make it significantly harder to have any semblance of a moral high ground in dealing with other nations around the globe. We have failed, quite publicly, to live up to our own set of ideals, and that makes it nearly impossible for our own diplomats to carry out any sort of human rights mission around the globe. It's one thing to be ashamed of specific actions by my own government. That happens. But, what horrifies me about this situation is that we've now built up this perfectly handy tool to make the job of US diplomats focused on human rights issues almost impossible. Any effort to seek better human rights elsewhere will be met with pushback as foreign governments point to the US's own awful track record on these particular items. It's really quite a shame.
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