The curious case of Julian Assange is couched in complexity. But this is what makes it so interesting and divisive of opinion.
His role as Wikileaks founder in exposing the evil that governments do – Western governments in particular – when they believe right is on their side is unchallengeable. He opened all our eyes to what goes on under our noses, in our name. Perhaps, we – all of us – should have made more of what he uncovered about the behaviour of officials working on our behalf for a safer world. But deconstructing imperialism takes time and we’ve been somewhat distracted of late, by crises closer to home, some of which, like MPs’ expenses and bankers’ bonuses, are symptomatic of the wider malaise running through the documents obtained (probably illegally) and published by his website and its media allies.
What they demonstrate is that at all levels of our society, there is an elite operation that behaves with a sense of entitlement, whether domestic or global, to follow its own rules and ignore moral codes and legal boundaries.
But just because Assange broke the law for the purpose of good does not put him beyond the reach of the law in other aspects of our life. The charges he faces in Sweden are serious and he must be held to account for them. We like our heroes to be flawed, but that cannot and should not excuse behaviour which appears to be beyond the pale. Perhaps though when you believe – as you must, to take on the role as the global teller of truth, of exponent of liberty and transparency and you operate in a twilight world of conspiracy, corruption and cabals – you come to believe that the same applies everywhere. Some Assange supporters have, after all, determined that the sexual offences of which he has been accused by two women are trumped up and part of a plot to bring him down.
There is nothing, though, to suggest that this is the case. Nor that they are some kind of a ruse to flush him out and over the Atlantic to America, which he and his people assert is the real reason everyone wants him out of the Ecuadorian Embassy. No charges have yet been laid by the US authorities; no warrant for his arrest for treason or other high crimes has been issued; no indication given that eventually any of this is what will transpire.
In any event, as others more qualified than me have explained, neither the UK nor Sweden can extradite someone to the US if they are at risk of the death penalty under the European Convention of Human Rights. And, again as others have pointed out, Sweden is more likely to uphold this than the UK, which has a lop-sided approach to extradition matters with the US. If such espionage and other charges come to fruition, Assange stands a better chance of resisting them from Sweden than from the UK, even if it is from a prison cell following a conviction for sexual offences.
Which is of course, far from certain. The Swedish investigation into the allegations is at an early stage; it has stalled because Assange broke bail and sought diplomatic sanctuary. Stalemate has been reached but all around him swirls the portent of a much bigger crisis.
The UK has spent months – if we are to believe what we are told – behind the scenes negotiating with Ecuador for Assange’s removal. Having reached the end of the line, or their tethers, William Hague and his officials started making very public threats to invoke little used laws to remove Assange. The idea of breaking into another country’s embassy has created ripples in the murky world of international diplomacy: Russia has waded in, issuing veiled threats, enjoying the opportunity, no doubt, to create a little mischief at the UK’s expense, smarting as it is, from the opprobrium heaped upon it for its treatment of Pussy Riot. Such is the maturity of international diplomacy.
If the UK follows through on its threat, some have warned that our diplomats and overseas staff will be at risk of reciprocity. A game of international tit for tat might ensue: we will have broken the rules and the world of international diplomacy will reserve the right to exact its own retribution. There’s an irony here, as yet untapped, but also, something far more distasteful.
We all know (or at least, suspect) that the cloak of diplomatic immunity has been misused to protect individuals from the consequences of crimes committed in countries in which they resided. Particularly if they were important or monied enough. Indeed, a little investigative journalism into this would be welcome.
Is the UK making an exception for Assange? Has it turned a blind eye to serious allegations made by people who can claim diplomatic immunity or political asylum because it has been expedient to do so? Have other countries done the same for us? Is there one rule for some, and another for the rest of us?
In effect, this is what Julian Assange appears to have persuaded himself of. That, by embarking on his Wikileaks venture, the rule of law does not apply to him, whether international or domestic. Yet, by his very behaviour over these charges, he has exposed himself as a fraud.
We thought he was on our side. That he shared our distaste of and dislike for the unevenness with which the West applied notions of human rights to others. That he believed in the need to create a more civilised world, where the law applied equally, fairly and justly to all. But in his quest, he appears to have forgotten a self-evident truth: that what keeps us civilised as societies, as communities and as individuals, is a fundamental belief that we should treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. It’s a tad crude, but in essence, this is the point of human rights and indeed, justice systems.
And in his mission to expose all that is cruel, inhumane, opaque and illegal in our dealings with each other as states, he appears to have forgotten a touchstone principle. That in a fair and just world, the little laws – the ones, for example, which aim to prevent men from using power to abuse women, and to punish them when they appear to do so – matter just as much as the big ones.