Assange: Law, politics and human rights

From the September-October 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Assange: Law, politics and human rights

London—Protest can be violent. Yet whilst violence towards demonstrators often goes unremarked even in an avowedly democratic nation such as Britain, police violence towards foreign officials, as may have occurred during an attempted storming by British police of the Ecuadorian Embassy, seems a little too much to handle.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has since attempted to downplay claims from the Ecuadorian Embassy that he threatened to have police officers attack the embassy building in pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assange has been a resident of the Ecuadorian Embassy since mid-June, when he submitted a request for asylum. Mr. Hague has since stated there was “no threat” to the embassy, despite an earlier warning to Ecuadorian officials of the possibility of revoking the embassy’s diplomatic status due to their harboring of Assange.

Assange himself sees things differently, claiming that police officers have been seen “swarming” over the building’s interior fire escape in an apparent attempt to intimidate the occupants. Whatever the case may be, Assange’s recently successful bid for asylum in Ecuador, alongside the possibility of the UK government using force to retrieve him, opens up wider questions on international law and its implementation by nation states.

Assange is wanted for questioning by Swedish authorities regarding alleged sex offenses. This, and his subsequent violation of parole, are the reasons behind the British government’s attempts to seize him.

However, according to a recent article in The New Statesman, there are certain “legal myths” surrounding Assange’s case which would suggest the non-political, and apparently legally valid, attempts to detain him.

The author, David Allen Green, claims that Assange’s demand that, if placed in their custody, Sweden deny any extradition request by the USA is “asking the impossible.” Assange also apparently has nothing to fear in regards to extradition, given that he is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which forbids extradition to a country if the person concerned is at risk of torture. International law, it would seem, should provide Assange with all the assurance he needs that he would be treated humanely if somehow delivered into U.S. custody.

Yet Bradley Manning is also due legal protection under both U.S. domestic law as well as the International Declaration of Human Rights.

The U.S. is also party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. It is also a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights. Yet this has not stopped the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, from accusing the U.S. of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” following an examination of Manning’s case. In the very same report, Mendez laments British intransigence on the issue of one “Mr. X” who, if returned from the UK to Burundi, was deemed vulnerable to persecution, including torture.

Writing for The Guardian on Aug. 24, Glenn Greenwald attacked the notion that, if extradited to Sweden, any decision to send Assange to the U.S. would be determined solely by “an independent Swedish court.” According to Greenwald “Swedish extradition law is written to ensure that if an extradition is to occur, Swedish government officials, not its courts, are the final decision-makers on whether that should take place.”

In both the British and Swedish cases, law does not exist in a separate vacuum from politics and the affairs of politicians. Legal decisions, especially when involving matters of international law, are characterized by the political objectives of the contending state powers.

The accusations against Assange are indeed troubling. Yet no rational supporter is claiming that Assange cannot possibly be guilty of the accusations leveled against him by Sweden. The primary concern is that he may not face a fair trial and that, given the rather troubled history of the ECHR in association with the very real threat of political intervention in any legal proceedings, extradition to the U.S. cannot be ruled out.

Indeed, in an article published, again in The New Statesman, John Pilger successfully highlights Swedish cooperation with U.S. extradition requests in the past, most notably in the 2001 case of two political refugees, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed el-Zari, who were handed over to the CIA and rendered to Egypt. They later claimed to have been tortured by security forces.

Law, and the violence practiced in its pursuit, is inherently political. The decision to issue ominous threats to the Ecuadorian Embassy over its hosting of Julian Assange highlights Britain’s political interest in partaking in the “witch hunt” against whistle-blowers. Pursuing a purely legal argument as if the law itself constitutes an irrefutable defense, as Green appears to have done, is therefore deeply problematic and can potentially spell disaster when it comes to the protection of human rights.

—Dan Read

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