The whole diplomatic confrontation over Julian Assange is not as momentous as some people would have you think. It is not about the victory of freedom of speech over tyranny, no matter what Assange tells you from the safety of his window at the Ecuadorian Embassy, nor a David-and-Goliath battle between a small country in Latin America and the West. All the altercation signifies is the precedence vested interests hold in matters of diplomacy.
What we are currently witnessing is a complex, unique situation in which an Australian political dissident is being harboured by Ecuador in its embassy in London, as British police wait outside the door to arrest him in order to send him to Sweden where there exists the possibility he will be extradited to the US to face the death penalty over espionage. The situation provides a diplomatic quandary between the US, Sweden, Britain and even Australia on one side and Assange, Ecuador and potentially other South American nations (who Ecuador has called on to support itself) on another.
Of course, at first glance that seems to immediately point to a bunch of ethical and legal predicaments which could all potentially open – and have begun to open – up a can of worms about a number of issues in international relations. But when we delve deeper into the dilemma, we don’t wind up with corny meta-narratives about freedom of speech, nor about colonialism and especially not about how Assange brought a superpower to its knees. All we end up with is the same old cliché we conclude with regarding every single event in international relations: that is vested self-interests and self-serving hypocrisy are the order of the day in politics.
Assange is President Correa’s political cash-cow
Let’s start off with Ecuador, the country which Assange boasts “took a stand for justice” in granting him asylum and which deems itself a fighter of all things imperialistic. People are fast jumping on the Ecuadorian bandwagon and praising it for standing its ground against the West and neo-colonialism. But by the time Ecuador granted asylum to a man who exposed the injustices committed by a (relatively) democratic country in the US, it had taken away the political asylum off of another man for exposing the corruption of what effectively is a dictatorship.
Aliaksandr Barankov, a former Belarusian financial crimes investigator, was granted asylum by Ecuador last year after being wanted back home for unearthing corruption. Now, Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” and if Barankov will get extradited, he will probably be executed. Yet, in June, Barankov was arrested by Ecuadorian authorities in Quito, just weeks before Lukashenko visited Ecuador for two days, signing multiple trade agreements and a preliminary defence co-operation agreement.
The truth is Ecuador is not interested in human rights or political justice. It has a bad human rights record and its president, Rafael Correa, is notorious for harassing Ecuadorian journalists – Ecuador is ranked 104th in the index of world press freedom. He has imprisoned reporters who have criticised his government, which he justifies by playing the imperialism card and calling them “pawns of Western embassies”. Along with Venezuela and Nicaragua, both notoriously anti-American, Ecuador was recently labelled one of “Latin America’s new authoritarians”. Ultimately, Correa is only interested in stirring the Ecuadorian people’s anti-imperialistic feelings and beating his nationalistic chest to win approval.
Correa needs to win votes in a country plagued by poverty and which has recycled its leaders because of it. Granting asylum to Assange is a low-cost strategy to maintain presidential approval ratings for Correa. The costs, either in terms of foreign policy or economics, of provoking either England or America are astonishingly low for Correa, for whom stumbling upon Assange presented a political cash-cow from which he could milk the extreme anti-imperialist sentiment of the Ecuadorian public.
Correa can afford to irritate England by calling its judicial process flawed and saying Ecuador won’t become an English colony because Ecuadorian exports to Britain make up a measly 0.7 per cent of its total exports (and so it wouldn’t be affected by any trade barriers) and if England makes any move which looks as if it is violating Ecuadorian sovereignty, it will look like the bad guy in the international arena. This has already occurred, and Ecuador’s South American companions have already criticised London’s threats to raid the Ecuadorian embassy to obtain Assange.
He can also afford to stir up America, believe it or not. Even after Correa refused to renew the Pentagon’s lease on the Manta airbase south of the Colombian border, and after he expelled the US ambassador because of material released by Assange’s WikiLeaks, Ecuadorian exports to the US grew, whilst the inverse number declined. Additionally, as seen by the Barankov case, Correa has deepened ties with America’s rivals, Russia (and Belarus), Iran and China. After all of this, Ecuador is still too much of an insignificant country for the US to touch.
At the end of the day, Assange’s asylum is ultimately a cost-effective diversionary tactic for President Correa to keep Ecuadorians’ nationalistic fervour slaked while he looks to buy time for his social programs to take full effect and lower poverty levels, as he has promised they’d do. Former President Lucio Gutierrez has even gone as far as suggesting Correa could use Assange’s hacking skills to steal the upcoming elections.
Assange showed the world the West can be just as bad as the rest
The US is well within its rights to consider its options in prosecuting Assange and if it finds it has a case against him, would also have the right to extradite him. The Australian embassy to the US has identified a wide range of criminal charges America can – and wants to – bring against Assange, including conspiracy, unlawful access to classified information and computer fraud, along with espionage.
However, while Assange is a law-breaker, he is also a whistle-blower and a political dissident, which makes his criminal activity justifiable in some people’s eyes. Indeed, even America has historically bent over backwards, diplomatically speaking, to grant political asylum to political dissidents who exposed human rights abuses. It did so for those who campaigned against Communism during the Cold War, such as Cardinal József Mindszenty, an opponent, and victim, of communism and the Stalinist persecution in Hungary, who lived in the US embassy to Budapest for 15 years (just as Assange may have to do in Ecuador’s embassy to London) after the 1956 revolution.
Nor did it find any trouble granting political asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the Chechen rebel leader, in 2004 – even though Russia labelled him a terrorist and others in Washington appeared apprehensive about it. The US also constantly backs human rights activists who try to expose problems in other countries whose interests differ from America’s, such as China. What this all seems to point to is that America, just like any other country would in its position, supports those dissenters who share its values and criticises others who don’t – just like Ecuador, funnily enough.
The bottom line is America wants to protect its own interests. It always has. It doesn’t like it when other countries call to extradite or detain political dissidents who campaign for causes it agrees with, but expects to be allowed that luxury when someone dissents against it. Additionally, America convicting Assange is as much a matter of seeking revenge for him having fractured its image as an infallible, impenetrable world leader than it is one of merely issuing legal consequences for his actions. After all, even though it’s possible Assange may have endangered the lives of the people whose names he published, it is more likely Assange endangered America’s reputation.
Additionally, when British authorities last week pointed to the possibility of raiding the Ecuadorian embassy to arrest Assange – citing a domestic law, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, as its justification for doing so – it played itself right into the hands of Assange and his Ecuadorian brothers-in-arms. Needless to say, under International Law – through the 1964 Vienna convention in particular – any domestic law becomes overriden when political asylum has been granted. The UK was made to look worse than even the most authoritarian of tyrants who have managed to respect the age-old diplomatic sanctity of ambassadorial privilege.
In the end, America’s attempts to repair being made to look like a tyrannical superpower, England’s illegal threat to raid a nationalistic South American embassy in order to get to Assange and Australia’s reluctance to look after one of its citizens who offended the country’s most powerful ally, all go down to show that the West can just be as bad as the rest when it comes to serving your own interests.
Assange has succeeded at being the most annoying mosquito to ever bite a giant
Assange always meant to expose the US’s actions to the rest of the world. He always wanted to provoke the US and make it look evil and perhaps even a little bit stupid. Well, this whole fiasco has created more bad attention for the US and its Western allies than it really should have.
He and the WikiLeaks crew have already made American intelligence agents look second-rate. He has already made people doubt the nature of America’s “peaceful supremacy”. Now, the dogged Assange will either look like a martyr having exposed America and its behaviour, or a victor over the US having exposed its Achilles-heal. He has practically legitimised all those meta-narratives mentioned before about freedom of expression and the neo-colonialist attitude of the West. Whether he planned it or not, he has succeeded at carrying out his own interests of exposing the US.
What the event does indeed show is that the realist assumption that agents seek to serve their own interests in international relations is still alive and well.