Rallying support

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

At a gathering of Foreign Ministers from ALBA and UNASUR nations called to discuss the case of Assange, at Guayaquil in Ecuador on August 19, a show of solidarity by Uruguay's Luis Almagro, Argentina's Hector Timerman, UNASUR general secretary Ali Rodriguez, Peru's Rafael Roncagliolo, Ecuador's Ricardo Patino, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro and Colombia's Maria Holguin.-REUTERS

At a gathering of Foreign Ministers from ALBA and UNASUR nations called to discuss the case of Assange, at Guayaquil in Ecuador on August 19, a show of solidarity by Uruguay's Luis Almagro, Argentina's Hector Timerman, UNASUR general secretary Ali Rodriguez, Peru's Rafael Roncagliolo, Ecuador's Ricardo Patino, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro and Colombia's Maria Holguin.-REUTERS

South America by and large backs Ecuador in granting political asylum to Julian Assange.

AT a special meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) held in Washington on August 24, there was overwhelming support for the Ecuadorean governments decision to grant political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The meeting was held at the specific request of Ecuador to consider a resolution rejecting attempts to put at risk the inviolability of its embassy in London, where Assange had taken refuge in the last week of June. The draft resolution submitted by Ecuador to the OAS wanted the United Kingdom to strictly comply with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The 34-member body expressed its solidarity and support with Ecuador in the ongoing diplomatic impasse with Britain over the granting of political asylum to the whistle-blower.

In the resolution that was passed, the OAS rejected any attempt that may put at risk the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions. The OAS urged Britain and Ecuador to continue to engage in dialogue in order to settle their current differences in accordance with international law. The United States and Canada, which are members of the grouping, tried to mount a rearguard action against Ecuador, but they found themselves in a hopeless minority. Only Trinidad and Tobago, along with Panama, supported the U.S. Initially, Washington objected to the holding of the emergency meeting on the grounds that it was a bilateral issue between Ecuador and the U.K. and that the OAS has no role to play in the matter. The reservations of the U.S. and Canada on the resolution were included in a footnote. The British government is now claiming that it never questioned the inviolability of the Ecuadorean mission in London.

Ecuadors President, Rafael Correa, was quick to welcome the change in the attitude of the British government. He is no longer demanding a public apology from London for its earlier threat to storm the embassy to arrest Assange. Speaking to the media in Quito on August 25, a day after the OAS meet, Correa said that his government considers the diplomatic incident over, after a grave diplomatic error by the British government in which they said that they would enter our embassy.

At the OAS meeting, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino criticised Britain for what he described as an assault on our sovereignty. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said that the August 15 communique from the British Foreign Office had stated that there were legal grounds on which the U.K. government could revoke the diplomatic status of the Ecuadorean embassy in order to arrest Assange on its premises.

He said that it was not only a threat, but a blunt threat. The majority of OAS members wanted the adoption of a tougher resolution criticising Britain for threatening the inviolability of diplomatic missions. The consensus resolution which was finally passed reiterated the obligation of all states not to invoke provisions of their domestic law to justify non-compliance with their international obligations.

Britains permanent observer to the OAS, while insisting that no threat was made against the Ecuadorean embassy, requested the resumption of talks on the issue. However, Britain was firm against granting Assange safe passage out of the country. Correa responded by saying that the window of dialogue was never closed. At the same time, he said that his government would continue to insist that Assange should not be deported to a third country when he goes to Sweden to face the criminal charges.

The Ecuadorean government said that a written undertaking from Britain and Sweden that Assange would not be extradited to a third country was enough to make Assange hand himself over to the British police. A former Stockholm chief public prosecutor, Sven Erik Alhem, said that the decision of the Swedish government seeking to extradite Assange was unreasonable and unprofessional, as well as unfair and disproportionate, because he could have been questioned in the U.K. without any problem.

Assange and his legal team have been insisting that the frivolous criminal charges against him are only a pretext to get him extradited to the U.S. to face charges relating to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of confidential State Department and Pentagon documents. Leaked documents from Stratfor, a think tank specialising in security matters which has close ties with the U.S. security establishment, indicated that the Barack Obama administration had set up a secret grand jury to try Assange on various charges, including that of high treason. If extradited to the U.S., Assange would most likely spend the rest of his life incarcerated in a top-security U.S. prison.

Two women with whom he had consensual sex are the complainants in the case. A Swedish prosecutor had investigated and dismissed the case. But the case was mysteriously resurrected by another prosecutor, who promptly issued an extradition order for Assange. Assange has made it clear that he is available for questioning by the Swedish police in London or via Skype. The Swedish authorities have chosen to ignore the offer and are insisting that Assange be physically present on Swedish soil. Both Britain and Sweden have on many occasions extradited people to the U.S., where they faced the risk of torture. The U.S. government today has powers to keep a suspect in jail for indefinite periods and to assassinate its own citizens if they are suspected of having terror links.

There are also double standards involved. Britain had refused to extradite the late Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, to Spain. Instead, London chose to let him go free despite serious charges of mass torture and rape levelled against him by relatives of the thousands of people killed during his brutal dictatorship.

The regional grouping ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), consisting of countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, issued a statement in mid-August declaring that British Prime Minister David Camerons attitude was another instance of British belligerence after the U.K. governments stance in the case of the Falklands islands, showing a lack of concern for relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. At the ALBA meeting convened at the request of Ecuador, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said, Latin America has to be respected, our people must be respected, but only united can we earn that respect. Recent events have shown that the region is solidly behind Ecuador as it fights to protect its sovereignty.

The Union of South American Nations (Unasur) has also taken a united stand on the issue. At a meeting held in the third week of August in the Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil, the Foreign Ministers of the 12-member grouping issued a strongly worded resolution supporting Ecuadors right to grant Assange asylum and condemning Britains threats to raid the embassy of a sovereign nation. The resolution reiterated the inviolability of embassies and the Vienna Convention, stating that international laws could not be overridden by domestic laws. Speaking to the media after the Unasur meet, the Ecuadorean Foreign Minister said that though Britain was a much more powerful country, Ecuador, a small country, had high moral authority. Reason does not call for force, he stated. The force may be as different and as distant as a small country and a country which has atomic bombs. But here, reason is with us.

Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy, a U.S.-based think tank, wrote recently that protecting Assanges civil liberties was crucial because it was a test case for all future whistle-blowers. He went on to add that it was also crucial to protect and sustain WikiLeaks for exactly the same reasons. He emphasised that the U.S. and its allies were trying to set a precedent of successful intimidation to deter future whistle-blowers. We cannot allow the precedent to stand, he wrote.

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