In August last year, a tragic road accident in Britain led to the death of 19-year-old Harry Dunn. This proved to be a spark that lit a political and diplomatic prairie fire, and the consequences have gravely tarnished the public’s view of Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the US imperialist superpower.
CIA operative Anne Sacoolas was visiting her husband, an employee at a US listening station (spy base) at RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire, when she collided with motorcyclist Harry Dunn. By her own admission, Sacoolas was driving on the wrong side of the road – a dangerous error that can be committed by foreign diplomats and tourists alike. (Harry Dunn death: Foreign Office doubt Anne Sacoolas will return to UK by Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 8 October 2019)
A travesty of ‘immunity’ – USA rewrites international law
In haste, Anne Sacoolas fled to the US, evading a potential prosecution under the cover of ‘diplomatic immunity’. Britain put in a formal extradition request to prosecute Sacoolas with causing ‘death by dangerous driving’, but the US refused it, asserting:
“At the time the accident occurred, and for the duration of her stay in the UK, the US citizen driver in this case had immunity from criminal jurisdiction. If the United States were to grant the UK’s extradition request, it would render the invocation of diplomatic immunity a practical nullity and would set an extraordinarily troubling precedent.” (US refuses to return American diplomat’s wife to Britain to face charges of killing a teen in collision by Meagan Flynn and Karla Adam, Washington Post, 24 January 2020)
This scandalous misuse of ‘diplomatic immunity’ caused widespread anger in Britain.
“[Foreign secretary Dominic] Raab called the US decision a ‘denial of justice’. He said he had expressed ‘the government’s disappointment’ to the US ambassador in London and said that the British government was ‘urgently considering our options’.
“Dunn’s mother, Charlotte Charles, told Sky News on Friday, that ‘It is a blow, but it’s one that we expected.’ She added that they would continue pushing to get Sacoolas back to Britain.
“Harry’s father, Tim Dunn, told the broadcaster: ‘At the end of the day, this lady has killed our son, by an accident, but she has to answer for that.’” (Washington Post, ibid)
The fact that even Dominic Raab openly condemned the US government’s flagrant abuse of the principle of diplomatic immunity shows that this event has put pressure on the British government and opened a rift between US and British imperialist allies.
And so it should. For Harry Dunn’s family, as for so many around the world, justice is fundamentally precluded by the existence of imperialism. The British public are beginning to see that the ‘special’ relationship only serves the parasitic exploiters on both sides of the Atlantic.
A one-sided relationship
Mr Raab also commented that the British government “would have acted differently if this had been a UK diplomat serving in the US”. We will leave it up to the reader as to whether or not to take his word for that.
Radd Seiger, spokesperson for the Dunn family, pointed out: “The US government is effectively saying it’s okay for American service personnel to come to the UK, kill our children and get on the next plane home. And I can assure your leaders that is not what’s going to happen. This is far from over.”
It is increasingly apparent that the special relationship is an exceedingly one-sided affair: more like that between a bully and his compliant enabler. The Washington Post article continued:
“Nick Vamos, a former head of extradition at Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, said the Vienna Convention sets out the ‘high level rules’ but is not ‘a complete and comprehensive rule book’. He said the law of diplomatic immunity appears to have been interpreted differently in Britain and in the United States, adding: ‘There is no court in which that dispute can be resolved.’
“The US’s position, he said, was that Sacoolas had immunity, but then lost it when she left the UK. He said the United States’ position, though not spelled out by the State Department, could be ‘that if she couldn’t be prosecuted in the US when she was here, then she shouldn’t be obliged to return through legal process. It’s a grey area.’
“Given that the US and the UK are close allies, he said, ‘it’s politically inconceivable for the US to bring legal proceedings against [secretary of state] Mike Pompeo exercising his discretion in this case.’ He said that Sacoolas could be extradited via another country if she leaves the United States, but ‘if she stays the rest of her life in the US and there’s no change of heart by the US administration, this brings it to the end’.”
In other words, though the legal mire is uncertain terrain and any agreement on extradition is relatively non-binding, Britain’s rulers are unwilling to fight any further to get Sacoolas sent back, preferring to preserve this ‘special’ [read: abusive] relationship rather than pursue justice for Harry Dunn and his family.
British workers are quite rightly demanding that the government should put the interests of its own citizens before any relationship with a foreign government. Meanwhile, the figurehead of Britain’s ‘patriotic right’, Nigel Farage, has let his followers down once again on this question, as on so many others.
On his LBC talk show, Mr Farage actually put in a phone call to US president Donald Trump. Instead of demanding that Mr Trump do what he could to extradite Sacoolas to Britain to face charges, he tamely asked: “Are there any circumstances … where she could come to the UK to face charges?”
To which Trump answered contemptuously that he would “have to see what the final facts are”. All Trump wanted to do – which seemed to satisfy Farage – was to get Harry’s parents to meet with Sacoolas, allegedly at Boris’s request. (President Trump on Harry Dunn’s death, LBC, 31 October 2019)
Sacoolas for Assange – a fair trade?
In February, Dunn’s parents made headlines again when they spoke out against Julian Assange’s extradition to the US, pointing out the injustice of doing so while the US was refusing to extradite Ms Sacoolas the other way. (Harry Dunn crash: Family urge government to block Julian Assange extradition, BBC News, 23 February 2020)
This highlighting of the inequality baked into the US-UK extradition treaty and of Julian’s case was extremely welcome, but there was a rather dangerous message implicit in the argument being put forward: that if Ms Sacoolas is sent back to Britain it might then be acceptable to extradite Assange to the US.
This may not be what Mr Dunn’s family meant to say, but this is certainly how many will have interpreted it. But Julian Assange’s case is an extremely important one, having worldwide ramifications regarding the impunity of war criminals and setting a precedent whereby US imperialism has arrogated to itself the right to persecute any journalist anywhere in the world for the crime of printing inconvenient truths.
As much as we sympathise with the motivations of those campaigning for Harry Dunn, to turn Assange into a bargaining chip in his case would be entirely the wrong thing to do.
For one thing, it would not be a fair trade. Britain’s extradition case against Ann Sacoolas concerns a criminal offence, with a valid legal precedent. The US’s extradition case against Julian Assange has no legal foundation whatsoever, while the US-UK extradition treaty explicitly excludes extradition on political grounds.
Surrendering Assange would not only be a travesty of justice and of international law, it would also be implicit recognition of the US’s self-conferred ‘might is right’ imperial assumption of global authority – the very same assumption that led it to pull Sacoolas out of Britain rather than let her face prosecution for manslaughter.
Something to hide?
Clearly, Ann Sacoolas should return to Britain to face trial, and clearly it would be best, as Harry Dunn’s family have repeatedly stated, that she return of her own volition. This raises an interesting question: whose idea was it that she should flee in the first place?
Reports suggest that Sacoolas was very cooperative with the police in the days running up to her sudden flight to the US. It has since transpired that she was not, as was at that time being stated, merely the ‘wife of a diplomat’, but a CIA agent in her own right, thus giving the US government a strong interest in ensuring she should evade further questioning.
It is perfectly possible that she was forced by her bosses to leave rather than stay and expose whatever nefarious business she was up to in Britain.
After all, it is a well-hidden truth that many ‘British’ army bases are home to American military and spy contingents whose operatives have complete impunity from British law, and who neither account for their actions to the British military nor to the British government.
This scandal, a tragedy for the Dunn family, is also an opportunity for workers to learn some home truths about how the much-vaunted ‘rule of law’ really operates under capitalism.
The British bourgeoisie, which loves to wrap itself in the Union Jack in order to spread divisive xenophobic prejudice amongst workers, falls at the first hurdle when it actually comes to defending the interests of its citizens from being trampled by a stronger foreign power.
We should watch and learn.