This article appeared at The Nation on August 16, 2012.
The British made a "huge mistake" in threatening yesterday to extract Julian Assange from Ecuador's London consulate after the Latin American country granted political asylum to the WikiLeaks founder, according to an international human rights lawyer. "They over-stepped, looked like bullies, and made it into a big-power versus small-power conflict,” said New York-based Michael Ratner in an interview with The Nation. Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is a consultant to Assange's legal team and recently spent a week in Ecuador for discussions of the case.
The diplomatic standoff will have to be settled through negotiations or by the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Ratner said. "In my memory, no state has ever invaded another country's embassy to seize someone who has been granted asylum,” Ratner added. There would be no logic in returning an individual to the very power seeking to charge him for political reasons, he said.
Since Assange entered the Ecuadoran embassy seven weeks ago, Ecuadoran diplomats have worked to avoid an escalation by private talks with the British and Swedes seeking an assurance that Assange will be protected from extradition to the United States where he could face charges under the US Espionage Act. Such guarantees were refused, according to Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, who said in Quito that the British made an "explicit threat" to "assault our embassy" to take Assange. "We are not a British colony,” Patino added.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday taht his government will not permit safe passage for Assange, setting the stage for what may be a prolonged showdown. According to a 1987 British law, the government might try to revoke the diplomatic status of a consulate on British soil, opening the way for the forced seizure of a wanted fugitive. But yesterday's British statement also acknowledged a desire for a "negotiated solution," possibly in response to furor over the threat to extract Assange by force.
The US has been silent on whether it plans to indict Assange and ultimately seek his extradition. But important lawmakers, like Sen. Diane Feinstein, a chair of the joint intelligence committee, have called for Assange's indictment in recent weeks. But faced with strong objections from civil liberties and human rights advocates, the White House may prefer to avoid direct confrontation, leaving Assange entangled in disputes with the UK and Sweden over embarrassing charges of sexual misconduct in Sweden.
Any policy of isolating Assange may have failed now, as the conflict becomes one of Ecuador – and a newly-independent Latin America – against the US and UK. Ecuador's president Rafael Correa represents the wave of new nationalist leaders on the continent who have challenged the traditional US dominance over trade, security and regional decision-making. Correa joined the Venezuelan-inspired Bolivian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) in June 2009, and closed the US military base in Ecuador in September 2009. His government fined Chevron $8.6 billion for damages to the Amazon rainforest, in a case that Correa called, "the most important in the history of the country." He survived a coup attempt in 2010.
It is unlikely that Correa would make his asylum decision without consulting other governments in Latin America. An aggressive reaction by the British, carrying echoes of the colonial past, is likely to solidify Latin American ranks behind Quito, making Assange another irritant in relations with the United States. Earlier this year, many Central and Latin American leaders rebuked the Obama administration for its drug war policies and vowed not to participate in another Organization of American States (OAS) meeting that excluded Cuba. Shortly after, President Obama acted to remove his Latin American policy chief, Dan Restrepo, according to a source with close ties to the Obama administration. Now the Assange affair threatens more turmoil between the US and the region.
For more details, please see previous coverage of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange here.