Foreign secretary William Hague’s apparent retreat from the threat to storm Ecuador’s embassy in London, where Julian Assange has been granted political asylum (at any rate, for the moment), stands as testament to that country’s steadfast resistance to bullying, but does nothing to conceal the growing contempt in which British and US imperialism hold the most basic norms of international law.
The decision to grant political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been recognised internationally as a brave and principled stand, and by Washington as a humiliating rebuff to its global pretensions. Back at home in Latin America, his progressive neighbours, grouped together in ALBA, have backed President Correa’s stand, whilst the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has declared its solidarity with Ecuador over any threat to its embassy and reaffirmed the right to diplomatic asylum.
Correa, popular with Ecuadoreans both for his government’s measures to improve the people’s welfare and for the anti-imperialist stand he has taken over Cuba and the Malvinas, has won wide approval for the decision to protect Assange from extradition to Sweden and subsequent rendition to the US. Graffiti covering walls in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, reads: “Assange is coming – Get ready”, and a banner unfurled by demonstrators in the city’s main square declared “Welcome Assange”.
Assange, charged with no crime in any country, has been the target for some unproven and increasingly dubious allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden. Yet if these sex allegations were the real bone of contention, then why did Sweden not respond to the invitation to send investigators to meet with Assange on UK soil, or to guarantee that a trip to Sweden would not be followed by extradition to the US (and a lifetime in jail)?
Either way, the allegations could be dealt with. Sweden’s obstinacy in this matter can only be explained by the fact that these allegations are the merest pretext for the persecution of a man who has caused grave embarrassment to US imperialism through the release of confidential emails relating to its war crimes against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Swedish social democracy: a shameful record
Sweden’s foreign minister maintains that “Our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and everyone. We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary,” whilst the Economist asserts that Sweden is “a country whose respect for human rights is beyond serious reproach”, claiming that it would be “impossible under Swedish law” to guarantee non-extradition to the States.
Yet no such lofty principles appeared to cramp Sweden’s social-democratic style back in the forties, when, under the cloak of ‘neutrality’ the bourgeoisie enriched itself through lucrative deals with fascist Germany. Nazi troops enjoyed safe passage through Sweden to fight the Red Army, vast amounts of iron and steel were supplied to the German war effort, and citizens of neighbouring occupied Norway were carried by Swedish trains to German concentration camps.
Nor did any overweening respect for legality stay the hand of the social-democratic Swedish government in 2001 when it handed two asylum seekers to the CIA, facilitating their illegal rendition to Cairo, where they were tortured. The fact that this collusion, condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee, was exposed by Assange himself, has clearly won him no friends in the Swedish establishment.
Threat to storm embassy
In typical weasel style, foreign minister William Hague announced the temporary retreat from the British government’s hot-headed threat to storm the embassy by denying that the threat had ever been made. The letter, delivered by the British embassy in Quito to the Ecuadoran government, which raised the possibility of this violation of diplomatic immunity was unambiguous, stating that “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.”
Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patiño at once cut through the Yes Minister blather, announcing “Today we have received from the United Kingdom an explicit threat in writing that they could assault our embassy in London if Ecuador does not hand over Julian Assange,” adding that “We want to be very clear, we are not a British colony. The colonial times are over.”
The British authorities’ clumsy attempt to justify their threat by the assertion that offering Assange asylum in the embassy was somehow “incompatible with the Vienna Convention” is laughable. Article 22 of that convention clearly states that embassies are inviolate and cannot be entered by the host country unless the ambassador agrees. What’s more, it is the bounden duty of the host country to protect the building from intrusion or damage.
And how does the British authorities’ eccentric interpretation of the Vienna Convention square with the recent case where an anti-socialist Chinese dissident was given asylum by the US embassy in Beijing until the Chinese government agreed his safe passage out of the country? By the British authorities’ logic, the Chinese police would have been fully justified in storming the US embassy. Will Cameron be phoning Obama any time soon to explain this novel reading of international law?
One-time British ambassador to Russia Sir Anthony Brenton put it mildly when he warned that a British breach of diplomatic immunity would “make the world a very different place”. Not least, presumably, for British embassy staff all the way across Latin America and beyond. British imperialism should recall the old adage: Be careful what you wish for.
:: Julian Assange – cyber-revolutionary or liberal do-gooder? , Proletarian issue 49 (August 2012)
:: WikiLeaks – the double standards and hypocrisy of US imperialism , Lalkar (January 2011)