Transparency and the rule of law


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It has all the ingredients of a good suspense novel: whistle-blower; rake; sex; imprisonment; international arrest warrant; fugitive; beautiful, blonde, admiring lawyer; vexed superpower; diplomatic faux pas and asylum. If Julian Assange, the Australian ex-computer-hacker-cum-pariah, did not engineer it, then he should count his blessings that official ineptitude caused it all to fall so obligingly into his lap. Then, of course, somewhere in the farrago is Wikileaks.

Despite the length of this saga, it is perhaps significant that certain crucial questions, that would throw light on what is really happening and people's real intentions, still remain shrouded in mystery.

It all started relatively innocently. Assange visits Sweden to speak at a seminar staged by the Social Democrats' Brotherhood Movement on "War and the role of media". He stays in the temporarily vacated flat of a female member of the Christian Association of Social Democrats. But this is where the complexity starts. She returns and Assange has sex not only with her, but also with a woman he met at the seminar. Not surprisingly, he is enamoured with the country and applies for a permit to live and work in Sweden, which, conveniently, has whistle-blower protection laws.


Brief enchantment

Unfortunately, his enchantment does not last long and we soon find his lawyers excoriating Sweden for 'denial of justice' and inadequate human rights protection. This, despite the fact that, according to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, Sweden's courts are rated among the most effective and transparent in the world.

The problem is that Assange is accused of rape and sexual molestation by the two women he bedded. The Swedish authorities prevaricate and make a meal of the matter, Assange's application for residency is rejected and he returns to the UK. Sweden issues an Interpol Red Notice against Assange and a European Arrest Warrant for 'rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion', while refusing to interrogate their suspect in the UK. Assange then surrenders himself to police in London and rather too draconianly, is locked up for several days before being granted bail.

Fugitive from justice?

With the help of Jennifer Robinson, the attractive, blonde lawyer who is often seen throwing admiring glances in his direction, Assange appeals all the way to the Supreme Court to avoid extradition to Sweden, but ultimately fails, whereupon he flees to the Ecuadorian embassy and applies for asylum. The UK responds by committing a massive faux pas, in the light of its unpopularity in Latin America, because of its Falkland Islands spat with Argentina.

By threatening 'actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the [Ecuadorian] embassy', the UK government ostensibly suggests it is prepared to flout the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations in order to fulfil its 'legal obligation' to extradite Assange to Sweden. No doubt gleefully, in response Ecuador takes, what Assange refers to as a 'stand for justice' and grants him asylum. Ecuador also brings the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations on board, as accusations of the UK behaving like a colonial bully are bandied about. Britain then promptly denies it had any intention of storming the Ecuadorian embassy.

The Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, says he acted because neither Britain nor Sweden would guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to the US, where he was likely to be charged with publishing secrets relating to US military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rafael Correa, whom many suspect of manoeuvring to become Latin America's next anti-US figurehead, claimed Assange would be denied due process in the US and could face life in prison or even the death penalty.

Smacks of opportunism and hypocrisy

To American ears, all this smacks of opportunism and hypocrisy, the US having previously clashed with Ecuador over what it portrays as human rights abuse, the persecution of journalists and political interference and corruption in judicial processes. Indeed, the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators for 2010, gave Ecuador a score of -1.17 ( out of a range of -2.5 to + 2.5) and a percentile ranking of just 11.85 for rule-of-law criteria compliance.

To help remedy this, USAID funded the Strengthening Ecuadorian Justice Project (2010 – 2012), which aimed to strengthen the rule of law and result in 'a more just, effective and accessible justice system that will better serve all citizens of Ecuador.' Yet America continues to level at Ecuador the charges that independent investigative journalism is being seriously hampered by police raids, kangaroo courts, computer seizure and numerous constitutional amendments aimed at greater control of the media and the judicial system.

Credibility lost

Unfortunately, because of its so-called 'war on terror', the US has lost much of the credibility it once savoured in the world. Extra-judicial assassinations, rendition and torture; indeterminate detention and the passing of retrospective laws to ease convictions in military courts, have all taken their toll. So too has the serious erosion domestically of basic legal principles conducive to fair trials. The upshot is that the US has left itself open to international political intrigue, embarrassment and ridicule.

In addition to the official heavy, cack-handedness that, to many, confirms string-pulling by the US, Assange has also cleverly capitalised on anti-American and UK sentiments in Latin America and must be basking in the media and diplomatic spotlight that now follows his every move. Unfortunately, in partly legitimising a regime that at other times shows contempt for the rule of law, his seemingly ego-centric shenanigans are likely to greatly detract from the professed Wikileaks aim to use freedom of speech and freedom of information 'toward improving the world we live in'.

While his initial motives and actions may have been commendable, showmanship rather than veracity appears to now be the name of the Assange game. In this, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Chile are among the Latin American nations eschewing any involvement, but on Friday the issue will be played out before a meeting of the Organisation of American States (which includes the US and Canada) in Washington.

Crucial questions

Unfortunately, crucial questions are unlikely to be addressed, such as:

If the US is pulling strings behind the scenes to have Assange extradited to Sweden, then the assumption must be that extradition to the US from Sweden is easier than from the UK. Yet the UK has a closer relationship with the US than Sweden and even has enacted much-criticised legislation that facilitates extradition to the US. Furthermore, both the UK and Sweden permit appeals to be made to the European Court of Human Rights. So, how does the US gain from getting Assange to Sweden?

Assange claims to cherish the rule of law and justice. He rightly refers to Guantanamo as an off-shore haven where human beings are laundered beyond the reach of the rule of law. He draws a parallel with money-laundering through the Cayman Islands. He also draws a parallel between his detention in Britain for a few days and the detention of other activists around the world, apparently dismissing Britain's rule of law in the process. Is this a valid and constructive parallel? How would Assange define a rule of law that is deserving of his respect? Does Ecuador fit the bill? By defying the decision of a British court and seeking asylum in Ecuador, is Assange showing respect for the rule of law?

There is little doubt that Interpol and its Red Notices do not comply with the rule of law and that European Arrest Warrants too are sometimes used to dubious ends by certain European countries where the rule of law is weak. However, is it supportive of the rule of law to criticise Sweden's justice system in an attempt to evade extradition under a European Arrest Warrant, or is it mere opportunism that works contrary to the rule of law?

Freedom of information certainly has a vital role in advancing the rule of law; but for Assange to be credible as a supporter of the rule of law, he must answer these questions clearly, rather than theatrically throwing any more red-herrings into this febrile mix.

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