By Stephen MacAvoy
The British government’s threat to invade the Ecuadorian Embassy in order to capture Julian Assange, who has sought refuge there, has been met with huge international condemnation, including from Latin America where it has been regarded as just the latest act of aggressive Western foreign policy in the region.
On 15 August the Ecuadorean government reported that, whilst considering the asylum case of Julian Assange, it had received a written note from the UK government threatening to “take action to arrest Mr Assange in existing facilities of the Embassy.” It continued with the barely veiled threat 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.“
Within just four days after the written threat was made public to the world by Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, Latin America united to condemn the threats of the British government. The Organisation of American States voted to host a special conference to discuss this matter with 23 countries voting for and just 3 against including the US and Canada.
The socialist-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) grouping and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) had organised special conferences where they unanimously made clear their opposition to the threat from the British government and expressed their strong solidarity with Ecuador.
The Union of South American Nations unanimously agreed a document that resolved to “express solidarity and support the Government of the Republic of Ecuador against the threat of violation of its Embassy” and to “strongly condemn the threat of force between States and to reiterate the full observance of the principles enshrined in international law, respect for sovereignty and faithful implementation of international treaties”.
This includes that embassies “shall be inviolable” – that is, regarded as sovereign territory of the nation – as stated under Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Britain is a signatory. William Hague sought to dismiss this international commitment with claims that a British law would effectively over-ride this.
The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) statement “rejects the intimidation and threats uttered by the United Kingdom, violating the principles of sovereignty and… international law” and “warns the Government of the United Kingdom about the serious consequences that would be triggered throughout the world, in case of a direct aggression against the territorial integrity of the Republic of Ecuador in London”. It called on “on all governments in the world, social movements and the intelligentsia to oppose this new claim of the British Government to impose its will by force on sovereign nations of the world”.
The threat from William Hague took place against a backdrop of increased tensions between Britain and Latin America over the Malvinas Islands and allegations that Britain has deployed nuclear weapons to South America, in violation of the region’s nuclear free treaties. As Ecuador’s Foreign Minister pointed out, “We want to be very clear; we’re not a British colony. The colonial times are over.” President Correa separately stated: “Ecuador, in a sovereign fashion, decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Julian Assange… What sort of mentality is it that still doesn’t realise Latin America is now sovereign and free?”
The full statement issued by Ecuador setting out its response to Assange’s asylum application can be seen here.
Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange was a sovereign decision, made in line with its commitments to international law. It was taken after no guarantees were forthcoming from either Britain or Sweden that Assange would not be onwardly extradited to the United States if he was released from the embassy to face sexual allegations in Sweden.
If he was extradited to the US, there are fears that he could be subjected to similar treatment to Bradley Manning, the US officer arrested on suspicion of having passed classified material to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. The detention conditions for Manning prompted international concern, with a United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, publishing a report saying the detention conditions had been “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
As it made clear in its ruling announcing the granting of asylum, to avoid Assange facing similar treatment, Ecuador had:
“maintained high-level diplomatic talks with the United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States.
In the course of these conversations, our country has sought to obtain strict guarantees from the UK government that Assange would face, without hindrance, an open legal process in Sweden. These safeguards include that after facing his legal responsibilities in Sweden, that he would not be extradited to a third country; that is, ensuring that the Specialty Rule is not waived. Unfortunately, despite repeated exchanges of messages, the UK at no time showed signs of wanting to reach a political compromise…
Assange’s lawyers invited Swedish authorities to take Assange’s statements in the premises of the Embassy of Ecuador in London. Ecuador officially conveyed to Swedish authorities its willingness to host this interview without interference or impediment to the legal processes followed in Sweden. This measure is absolutely legally possible. Sweden did not accept. On the other hand, Ecuador raised the possibility that the Swedish government establish guarantees to not subsequently extradite Assange to the United States. Again, the Swedish government rejected any compromise in this regard.”
As the guarantees were not forthcoming, Ecuador feared the consequences of not granting asylum.
“the possibility that Mr. Assange could be extradited to a third country outside the European Union without proper guarantees for their safety and personal integrity” and that“legal evidence clearly shows that, given an extradition to the United States of America, it would be unlikely for Mr. Assange to receive a fair trial, and likely that he would be judged by special or military courts, where there is a high probability of suffering cruel and degrading treatment, and be sentenced to life imprisonment or capital punishment, which would violate his human rights.”
However the Ecuadorian government continues to make clear it seeks a diplomatic solution with Britain and Sweden that would facilitate the allegations made against Julian Assange to be heard with Sweden’s legal system. On Saturday 18 August, President Correa once again pointed out that:
“We’ve never said that Julian Assange shouldn’t answer to the Swedish justice system nor contribute to the investigation into these supposed crimes…What we have always asked for is a guarantee that there won’t be a second extradition to a third country as that would put at risk Mr Assange’s life and freedom.”
Hands Off Ecuador!
William Hague’s threats against Ecuador need to be opposed and the British government should be urged to use its influence to resolve the matter in line with the guarantees demanded by Ecuador. If the real intentions of the US and Swedish governments were to investigate the accusations of rape against Assange they would immediately issue guarantees that he would not be extradited to the US – where clearly the charges against Assange would not be for rape but for having exposed the real operations of the US government. The fact that the British and Swedish governments refuse to give such guarantees shows that their real intentions are not in regard to the accusations of rape but the way WikiLeaks has exposed the operations of the US. This reality clearly justifies the position taken by Ecuador.
The British and Swedish governments should immediately accept the proposals of the Ecuadorean government that Assange would not extradited from Sweden. That way both of the women who have made allegations against Assange can preserve their undoubted rights to have their accusations properly investigated and legal proceedings could occur if they appear proved.
The guarantees sought by Ecuador would ensure that Assange is not additionally extradited to the US for publishing material on WikiLeaks. The US wants to make an example of whistleblowers so Assange would at a minimum be imprisoned with the additional real risk of torture or worse.
There is likely to be a protracted struggle over how to resolve this standoff between the Britain, Ecuador and wider Latin America following the British threats. Solidarity with Ecuador and the rest of Latin America will be needed.