A decade ago, the British government of Labour prime minister Tony Blair decided to back President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq even though foreign office lawyers in London had warned that such an attack had no “legal basis in international law.” In the midst of sharp divisions in government and British society, the invasion went ahead in March 2003. The consequences were far-reaching and they undermined the Blair government’s authority at home. Limping thereafter, he resigned in June 2007, humbled and apologetic. War and the economy together played no mean part in Tony Blair’s fall in British politics and the Labour Party’s defeat three years later.
A few days ago, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague personally approved a letter that was sent to Ecuador. Its details were taken as a threat to raid the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and drag out WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange for extradition to Sweden, where state prosecutors say they want to question him about complaints of sexual assault. Hague’s letter was delivered to Ecuador despite the “grave reservations of lawyers in his department.” Speaking anonymously to the Independent newspaper, a senior British official said that “staff feared the move could provoke retaliatory attacks against British embassies overseas.” A large majority in the Organization of American States is up in arms. Outside the Americas too, Britain is struggling to find much sympathy for its stance. In soccer parlance, Prime Minister David Cameron’s center forward has scored a spectacular own goal.
While Julian Assange made a statement from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, attacking America’s “witch hunt” against WikiLeaks and journalistic freedom, several former mandarins of the British Diplomatic Service expressed serious misgivings over William Hague’s handling of the affair. Oliver Miles, a 40-year veteran, described the letter to Ecuador as a “big mistake,” because “it puts the British government in the position of asking for something illegitimate.” Former ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, commented that the Foreign Office had “slightly overreached themselves, for both legal and practical reasons.” And a former envoy to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, said, “You cannot simply legislate domestically and opt out of international law.”
Otherwise, the mainstream broadcast and print media continued to provide a running commentary of the whole affair. The coverage has been generally confused, selective, repetitive and often hostile to Assange and a small Latin American country’s decision to grant him asylum. The Economist, though, positioning itself on the other side, criticized Britain’s “ham-handed invocation of a never-used, 1987 law to insinuate that it could, eventually, have the right to enter the embassy.”
It is perhaps necessary at this point to take note of the London-based Bertha Foundation’s legal director Jennifer Robinson, who has described the British Foreign Office’s letter and the implicit threat as unprecedented––one which, if implemented, would force a profound change in the conduct of international diplomacy. Also important is to take a look at the concerns raised by prominent American feminist writer Naomi Wolf in an article titled “Something Rotten in the State of Sweden: 8 Big Problems with the ‘Case’ Against Assange.” Under her microscope is the entire Swedish legal system.
Why does Assange and others fear that Sweden would repatriate him to the United States, where he could face the rest of his life in jail, even execution for publishing leaked official documents? Because in November 2006 the United Nations found Sweden guilty of violating the global torture ban. Swedish officials handed over Mohammed El Zari and Ahmed Agiza, two Egyptian asylum seekers, to CIA operatives in December 2001, to be rendered from Stockholm to Cairo. Both were tortured in Egypt. And, as Seamus Milne wrote in the Guardian, because of reports of a secret indictment against Assange by a U.S. federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia.
The law says that someone who has suffered persecution, or fears that he or she will suffer persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion may seek asylum. In the last few days, the United States has claimed that it does not recognize the concept of “diplomatic asylum.” Exactly what distinction is Washington trying to make between asylum, political asylum and diplomatic asylum is baffling. Assange was after all in the territory of a foreign country that granted him refuge. Let us look at some precedents.
Stalin’s daughter Svetlana sought asylum when she walked into the U.S. Embassy in Delhi in 1967. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn got asylum and lived in the United States for years before returning to Russia. Martina Navratilova, the Czech tennis player, took asylum in the U.S. in 1975. There are numerous instances when dissidents have been granted refuge in the United States and elsewhere. The concept is universal and depends on the sovereign decision of the country dealing with an asylum request.
Also worth examining is the British foreign secretary’s assertion that the United Kingdom has a “binding obligation” to extradite Assange to Sweden. Let us, for a moment, go back to October 1998. Chile’s former military dictator Augusto Pinochet was visiting London for medical treatment. A Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon, now on Assange’s legal team, issued an arrest warrant for Pinochet on charges arising out of crimes against humanity in Chile. Pinochet was arrested a few days later in Britain, where he would spend more than a year in judicial custody, fighting extradition to Spain. The House of Lords, then Britain’s highest court, ruled that Pinochet could indeed be handed over to the Spanish judicial authorities, because crimes such as torture could not be protected by immunity.
The British government nonetheless allowed Pinochet to return to Chile in March 2000 on health grounds. The law was clear, but for Britain’s Labour government at the time there was no “binding obligation” to extradite Pinochet to Spain. Chile under Pinochet had backed the United Kingdom during the brief Falklands war with Argentina. Moreover, he and Britain’s former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher were admirers of each other. There was, after all, a way out for Pinochet to return home instead of being extradited to Spain. Writing about the essence of rule of law and government’s legitimacy, Thomas Hobbes in his seventeenth-century work Leviathan observed: “The law is the public conscience.” What conscience?