No one else will protect Assange, so Ecuador will [The Drum /]

Ecuador should be applauded for protecting Julian Assange from the forces of repression when no one else will, says barrister Greg Barns.

17 August 2012

Ecuador’s decision to grant Julian Assange asylum, coming from a country which resents the toxic influence of the United States in Latin America, is no surprise.

But what is utterly bewildering and scandalous is the preparedness of the UK government to arrest Assange and ensure that he is handed over to the spineless Swedes by using a law designed to stop embassies being used to promote terrorist activity.

The UK government says the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, passed in 1987, enables its government to declare that the Ecuadorian Embassy is simply UK territory and that its police can enter and arrest Assange, who it says has breached bail. And the foreign secretary William Hague said overnight that the UK government "will not allow Mr Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so".

Let’s look at the 1987 Act first. This law was enacted in an era when the UK had difficulties with countries like Libya using embassies for terrorist activity or acts of violence. The Second Reading Speech on the Bill – which provides the explanation of what the purpose of the law is – was delivered by Baroness Young, the responsible minister on May 14, 1987.

A provision in the bill to allow the government to declare an embassy British territory on the grounds of national security was drafted because, Baroness Young said, "at present we would be unable to remove diplomatic status from premises which were being misused".

"I have in mind here evidence over a long period of time that a mission was being used, for instance, in support of terrorist activity," she added.

How could it be said that Julian Assange, facing breach of bail charges and sexual assault charges in the UK, is a matter of national security?

To send in British police to arrest Assange under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act shows simply that the UK is prepared to abuse power in the way one might expect from an authoritarian regime.

It also creates a very dangerous precedent. If the nation that bangs on about how it is the bosom of the rule of law and fairness is able to act so capriciously to suit its friends [sic] in Stockholm, Canberra, and Washington, what is to stop other countries from running into embassies whenever someone inconvenient seeks asylum?

As for Mr Hague’s statement that there is no legal basis to allow Mr Assange safe passage out of the UK, this is also highly questionable.

While there have been cases where safe passage out of a country has been refused…if there are strong humanitarian grounds for safe passage after a successful asylum claim these should trump state sovereignty.

In Mr Assange’s case, it is clear that there is a real risk of torture by the Americans and the chances of a fair trial in Sweden are minimal. On these grounds, Mr Hague can find the legal basis to allow a departure.

Would the UK abuse its own legislative powers if the embassy in question was the US or Australia? No. It is determined to arrest Assange because it loathes the man who has exposed the dishonesty and duplicity of the US and its allies like the UK and Australia in their illegal war in Iraq.

One can conclude from the UK’s arrogance in this matter that it is still suffering the empire complex. It is treating a developing world country like Ecuador with the sort of contempt it treated its former African and Indian colonial subjects…

You can just hear the Oxbridge accents of the Foreign Office and their legal advisers. "These appalling Ecuadorians, what the hell do they think they are up to giving this fool Assange asylum? Send in the bobbies, will you, old chap?" appears to be the sentiment.

Australia, Assange’s homeland, has also been condemned by Ecuador, and justifiably so. Like British PM David Cameron, our leader Julia Gillard has been equally contemptuous of fair play when it comes to Assange.

Gillard and her ministers – as well as Anglophile Liberal leader Tony Abbott – have continued to treat Assange as an international criminal who deserves nothing more than what they call consular assistance, which is simply being thrown a phone book of local lawyers for him to use if he is in trouble.

Will Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and her opposition number George Brandis take issue with the misuse by the UK of its law to arrest an Australian citizen granted asylum? Of course not.

They are too frightened to offend their American friends who would nab Assange from Sweden before you could say Volvo, and have him tortured alongside Bradley Manning, the former US army officer alleged to have provided material to WikiLeaks.

If you value freedom of speech and you think it’s unhealthy that this freedom is curtailed by the United States and its satellites like the UK and Australia, then you will applaud Ecuador president Rafael Correa for staring down the forces of conservatism and repression.

Greg Barns is a barrister who has provided advice to the Assange campaign and is a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. View his full profile here.

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