If there were any remaining doubts about the motives behind the U.K./Swedish attempts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, they were dispelled last night. The U.K. government made an unprecedented threat to invade Ecuador's embassy if Assange is not handed over to them. Such an assault would be so extreme in violating international law and diplomatic conventions that it is difficult to even find an example of a democratic government even making such a threat, let alone carrying it out.
When Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, in an angry and defiant response, released the written threats to the public, the U.K. government tried to walk back a bit and say it was't a threat to invade the embassy (which is another country's sovereign territory). But what else can we possibly make of this?:
You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the UK - the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act -- which would allow us to take action 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.
Is there anyone in their right mind who believes that the U.K. government would make such an extreme and unprecedented threat if this were just about an ordinary foreign citizen wanted for questioning -- not criminal charges or a trial -- by a foreign government?
Ecuador's decision to grant political asylum to Assange was both predictable and reasonable. But it is also a ground-breaking case that has considerable historic significance.
First, the merits of the case: Assange clearly has a well-founded fear of persecution if he were to be extradited to Sweden. It is pretty much acknowledged that he would be immediately thrown in jail. Since he is not charged with any crime, and the Swedish government has no legitimate reason to bring him to Sweden, this by itself is a form of persecution.
We can infer that the Swedish government has no legitimate reason for the extradition, since they were repeatedly offered the opportunity to question him in the U.K., 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 June 19, 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 U.K.
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 here; evidence that an indictment had already been prepared; and statements by important public officials such as Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein that he should be prosecuted for espionage, which carries a potential death penalty or life imprisonment.
Why is this case so significant? It is probably the first time that a citizen fleeing political persecution from the United States government was 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 United States government 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 United States.
The idea of the U.S. government as a human rights defender, which was believed mostly in the U.S. and allied countries, was premised on a disregard for the human rights of the victims of U.S. wars and foreign policy, such as the 3 million Vietnamese or more than 1 million Iraqis who were killed, and millions of others displaced, wounded, or abused because of U.S. government actions. That idea -- that the U.S. government should be judged only what it does within its borders -- is losing support as the world grows more multipolar economically and politically, Washington loses power and influence, and its wars, invasions and occupations are seen by fewer people as legitimate.
At the same time, over the past decade, the United States' own human rights situation has deteriorated. Of course prior to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, millions of African-Americans in the southern United States didn't have the right to vote, and lacked other civil rights -- and the consequent international embarrassment was part of what allowed the civil rights movement to succeed. But at least by the end of that decade, the U.S. could be seen as a positive example internally in terms of the rule of law, due process and the protection of civil rights and liberties.
Today, the U.S. government 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 U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 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 U.S. government 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 United States and -- unlike Sweden and the U.K. -- will not collaborate in the persecution of a journalist for the sake of expediency. Hopefully other governments will let the U.K. know that threats to invade another country's embassy put them outside the bounds of law-abiding nations.
It is interesting to watch pro-Washington journalists and their sources look for self-serving reasons that they can attribute to the government of Ecuador for granting asylum. Correa wants to portray himself as a champion of free speech, they say, or he wants to strike a blow at the United States, or put himself forward as an international leader. But this is ridiculous.
Correa didn't want this mess and it has been a lose-lose situation for him from the beginning. He has suffered increased tension with three countries that are diplomatically important to Ecuador -- the U.S., U.K. and Sweden. The U.S. is Ecuador's largest trading partner and has several times threatened to cut off trade preferences that support thousands of Ecuadorian jobs. And since most of the major international media has been hostile to Assange from the beginning, they have used the asylum request to attack Ecuador, accusing the government of a "crackdown" on the media at home. As I have noted elsewhere, this is a gross exaggeration and misrepresentation of Ecuador, which has an uncensored media that is mostly opposed to the government. And for most of the world, these misleading news reports are all that they will hear or read about Ecuador for a long time.
Correa made this decision because it was the only ethical thing to do. And any of the independent, democratic governments of South America would have done the same. If only the world's biggest media organizations had the same ethics and commitment to freedom of speech and the press.
Now we will see if the U.K. government will respect international law and human rights conventions and allow Assange safe passage to Ecuador.
This was published by The Guardian Unlimited on August 16, 2012.