Sunday, 19 August 2012

Will Wikileaks Test The Vienna Convention?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claimed asylum from the Ecuadorian emabassy in London, sparking an international incident that's getting out of hand. With threats to storm the embassy and policemen holding back supporters ready to prevent attempts to arrest him should he try to leave, what can be done to calm things down and stop the situation getting worse?

Wikileaks was set up in 2006 as part of Sunshine Press, the idea being to provide whistleblowers with a place to share classified and confidential information online as part of an overall effort to encourage transparency. The sensitive nature of the documents and videos published there has made it controversial from the start. Anonymous' cause celebre Bradley Manning provided the famous "Collateral Murder" video for it, and is still on trial for insubordination and aiding the enemy. Wikileaks has been in decline for a while, and Assange's erratic behaviour has caused former supporters to desert him.

Arrest and asylum

In 2010 he was accused of sexual assault and rape and a European Arrest Warrant issued for his arrest. In London at the time, Assange reported to a police station and tagged. An attempt to extradite him to Sweden on these charges followed, and the decision to allow it the following February.  Then the High Court rejected all grounds for appeal. His lawyers issued a challenge, and in December 2011 he appealed to the Supreme Court. When that failed, he still had the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but if that failed, the extradition was to go ahead on 28th June 2012. Rather than take the chance on that failing too, he  requested political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on the grounds that he was being persecuted, alleging that the Swedish case was bogus and the plan was to extradite him from there to the United States, where he faced an unfair trial and possibly the death penalty. Ecuador granted him asylum on 16 August 2012. While the opportunity for Swedish investigators to question Assange has always been available, they have declined.

The standoff

While the decision to grant asylum was pending, there was a lot of toing and froing and will-they, won't they? going on. It's important to know why Ecuador agreed to take on the massive headaches that goes with naffing off two powerful nations and what is likely to happen next, given the precedents and the punditry.

Why Ecuador?

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the USA, first by canceling the lease on a US military base, citing the lack of a reciprocal arrangement, then expelling the US ambassador. Ecuador actually does have extradition agreement with the United States, but it's unlikely it'll be used as long as the current president continues to support Assange.

The threat and the consequences

When the UK realised that Assange might be granted asylum, the Foreign Office sent a "speaking note" citing the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 warning that Britain might revoke the status of the diplomatic mission if the state in question "ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post" – but only if such a move is "permissible under international law". The attempt to soften the blow by adding "We very much hope not to get to this point" has impressed no one. The Organisation of American States (OAS) has called a meeting of foreign ministers for August 24 to discuss the matter at their Washington headquarters. The US has already said they don't believe in "diplomatic asylum" and that the OAS should keep out of the matter.

Sweden said it was willing to be patient over the matter (they haven't formally charged him) and doesn't seem to be pushing for a resolution while British policemen wait outside the embassy ready to seize Assange if he tries to leave. There is no safe passage out of the embassy to the airports. Meanwhile, if Britain makes good on its threat, Ecuador will take them to the International Court of Justice over their failure to honour its obligations under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. There is also the matter of the Vienna Convention to consider. Embassies are supposed to be inviolable and this could set a bad precedent in international relations.

America's interest

Conflicting stories of America's interest in Assange range from difficulties prosecuting him because there's not much evidence to suggest that Assange induced Pfc. Manning to leak the documents that ended up on Wikileaks to a secret grand jury hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, and leaked emails from Stratfor that suggest a sealed indictment is ready to be made public when the legal arrangements with Sweden are complete. Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino says he tried to secure guarantees from the Americans, the British and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but was rebuffed by all three. Make what you will of this but I find it curious that Britain is the one making the fuss while Sweden keeps quiet and waits to see what happens. As it is, the case could drag on for years.

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