In June of this year, the Ecuadorean government took the controversial decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange, editor-in-chief and founder of WikiLeaks, wanted for questioning by the Swedish authorities over allegations of sexual assault made by two ex-WikiLeaks volunteers in 2010. Assange admits having sex with the two women but denies any wrongdoing, maintaining that it was consensual in both cases. Recently, The Mail on Sunday published a photo that Assange lawyers are hopeful will add weight to his declaration of innocence. The smiling group photo, taken at a dinner at Sweden’s Glenfiddich Hotel, shows Assange and members from Sweden’s Pirate Party just 48 hours after the alleged crime took place. Although there is little actual evidence for it, there has been some debate as to whether or not a honey trap was put in place either by the women in question themselves or through outside influence (e.g. The US). But, it should be pointed out that at this time, despite the media storm that has been whipped up around them, neither the women involved nor Julian Assange have been charged with any crime, which incidently will make a fair trial with the presumption of innocence very difficult to achieve. Instead, Assange suggests the US is attempting to sabotage the WikiLeaks project through his character assassination and may be attempting to seek extradition from Sweden should he arrive in the country for trial. The fears may be warranted, prima facie, given that Sweden has an extradition treaty with the US, as does the UK. The latter agreement has lead some to argue that Assange may not only be in danger of extradition to the US from Sweden but also directly from the UK. Despite these claims, the US make strong denials that they are making a case against him. If they were to build such a case, however, it would be constructed around the procurement and distribution of classified documents pertaining to national security. WikiLeaks has been in receipt of, and responsible for facilitating the release of, thousands of secret US government files over the years.
The South American reaction has been less concerned with Assange the person, WikiLeaks or the sexual assault allegations but more focused on the ‘safer ground’ of upholding international conventions on diplomatic protocol. This was prompted following the British government’s apparent threat to invioke the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 to forcibly remove Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy in which he is taking refuge. On this issue, it seems, all of South America can agree and the continent has unanimously (at least officially) condemned the UK position taken towards Ecuador and its Embassy in London. Moreover, the views have been generally supportive of Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, with shows of solidarity with the Latin American leader. Three key meetings were convened that have direct bearing on the case. The first held in Quito in Ecuador on the 18th of August by the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA), the second in Guayaquil, Ecuador on August the 19th by the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR) and the third in Washington, US on the 24th by the Organization of American States (OAS). Below we outline and discuss some of the themes coming out of South America.
As with all South American countries Chile supports Ecuador primarily in its appeal to uphold international law, not so much over granting Assange asylum per se. This is illustrated by Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno who, as reported by the English language Santiago Times, stated at the OAS meeting that, “We are not here to talk about the extradition of Assange,”… “We see this meeting as an opportunity to uphold the premisses of international law. No country can invoke norms of domestic law to breach international obligations”. The central thrust of the objection being that it is “unacceptable” to violate a diplomatic mission. Beyond the rhetoric, however, the Chilean press has reported on the apparent contradictions and ironies that lie beneath the surface. Chilean paper El Mercurio report that Nobel Literature Prize winner Vargas Llosa recently labelled the two protagonists (Correa and Assange) as “two of a kind”, the one with an horrendous record on denying press freedoms and the other attacked for being an “opportunist.” History often repeats itself and the significance of Chile in the dialogue is not trivial. The prominent WikiLeaks leader is being defended by Baltasar Garzón, the same Baltasar Garzón who, in 1998, attempted to have the dictator General Augusto Pinochet extradited from the UK to Spain on charges of the torture and murder of Spanish citizens. It is now widely believed that Pinochet was repsonsible for the deaths of several thousand individuals and had tens of thousands more tortured. For example, the legendary Chilean folk singer Victor Jarra was one of the thousands of unfortunates rounded up into a football stadium and murdered. He had his hands broken, was shot in the head and machine-gunned to death. In that case, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw reneged on the extradition obligation to Spain on grounds of Pinochet’s failing health. Although prosecutors in Sweden make charges in the latter stages of an inquiry, it is nevertheless still true that, at the time of writing, Julian Assange is yet to be formally charged with a crime; An irony not lost on Mr Correa. Although more recently, the General Secretary of OAS, José Miguel Insulza, failed to see the connection between the Pinochet and Assange cases.
For his part, the Ecuadorean President believes Assange is being treated with double standards and could indeed be further extradited to the US where he could be harshly treated (perhaps as in the case of Bradley Manning) and even put to death.This has lead supporters of Assange to call for the Swedish Government to guarantee, that if put on trial, Assange would not be sent to the US. Although it has been asserted that the courts and not the executive have final say in these matters, this argument has proved to be false and so there is some doubt as to whether Assange would be sent to the US if his extradition was requested. Nevertheless it seems entirely possible that the Swedes could guarantee Assange’s safety while answering questions related to the aforementioned allegations. On the issue of the alleged offenses, Correa has courted controversy by suggesting that they would not be considerd criminal in Latin America. The Ecuadorean paper El Norte also notes a number of contradictions over the case including that well-known individuals such as Oliver Stone and Michael Moore have simultaneously given support to Assange and WikiLeaks and condemned Rupert Murdoch for the News of the World revelations obtained by similar means to those used by WikiLeaks.
Brazil will likely prove to be the most important regional player in the Assange/Ecuador case. The Assange asylum incident is particularly close to home for the regional superpower as they are currently granting refuge to a Bolivian opposition politician in their Embassy in La Paz. The South American nation would probably like this whole incident to quietly go away while they continue on what Nikolas Kozloff has called their “Quixotic quest” to world power status. With the World Cup (2014) around the corner and playing host to the next Olympic games (2016), who can blame them. Futhermore, it is thought that Brazil are seeking a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Indeed a senior diplomat disclosed to Reuters that Brazil’s strategy is that, “We’re going to stay quiet on this one.”
Almost inevitably perhaps, given the recent heated tension between Buenos Aires and London over the Falkland Islands, Argentina’s official view has been made known via Ambassador to London Alicia Castro, who described the British government’s handling of the case as demonstrating diplomatic arrogance. Furthermore, as reported in a recent article in Argentina’s largest newspaper Clarín, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman gave support to Ecuador against the perceived aggression of the UK. In the meeting of OAS, Timerman said that the conflict was not simply a bilateral one between Ecuador and the UK, as the US has maintained, but wider, stating that an attack against one member of this organization (OAS) was an attack against them all.
Paraguay has been in a state of some internal turmoil recently due to leftist President Fernando Lugo being removed from power via a controversial impeachment process that some commentators have suggested amounts to a coup d’etat and has been condemned by many neighbours including Correa’s Ecuador. Nevertheless the Foreign Minister José Félix Fernández Estigarribia lent Paraguayan support to Ecuador in granting asylum to Assange in the OAS meeting, saying, with reference to Britain’s earlier threat to storm the Ecuardorean Embassy ,that Embassies are ‘inviolable‘. National paper Diario ABC color has been quick to point out the seeming contradictions in President Correa’s move to champion Assange as a defender of the truth and press liberty, when at the same time holding an appalling record against press freedoms at home. The paper notes that Ecuador is positioned at number 104 out of 179 (higher numbers meaning less freedom) in a Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Naturally enough, the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has become a staunch supporter of Ecuador in the crisis as the two countries are members of the socialist coalition ALBA set up by Chávez. This leftist coalition (including Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Venezuela) has the aim of regional social, political and economic collaboration, even tabling its own currency the SUCRE. Chávez, the protégé of Fidel Castro has a long history of anti ‘imperialist’ sentiment directed chiefly toward the US but also the UK. In a recent speech, the Bolivarian figure head warned Britain of ‘severe consequences‘ if the Ecuadorean Embassy was stormed. El Universal report on the support shown for Ecuador by ALBA and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro who called for solidarity between Latin American States against the ‘threats’ made by the UK.
The Colombians have been much more nuanced in their assessment of the Assange case when contrasted with the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez for example. However, they have supported the asylum offer, as shown by Foreign Minister Maria Ángela Holguín who said that the reason behind recent UNASURmeeting was because of : “The threats made by the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland against the integrity of the Embassy of Ecuador in London and against Ecuadorean sovereignty right to manage its asylum policy”, as reported by the Ecuadorean paper El Norte .”
The Foreign Minister for Uruguay, Luis Almagro, reported in the Uruguayan El País that the Ecuadorean decision [to grant asylum for Assasnge] was not premature and was grounded in law. He went on to say that Uruguay hopes that the UK respects the asylum in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. From Uruguay are also keeping a keen eye on events abroad, reporting that Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and other have signed a petition of support for Assange.
Since the inauguration of President Evo Morales, Bolivia has formed a close relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez , sharply criticising US foreign policy in the region. Morales’ Bolivia is socialist and also a member of ALBA, making it naturally sympathetic to Ecuador in its support of Assange. Morales was quoted as saying that “the times of plunder and invasion are gone” and that it is now a time for integration. The President added that after centuries of exploitation dating back to the era of the Conquistadores, Europe owes a debt to Latin America.
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is the current Present of UNASUR and the British response to Ecuador in the form of a letter threatening to take Assange by force prompted Perú to call for the UNASUR ‘extraordinary’ meeting. As The Guardian report, The notice was posted on the Embassy website and they have therefore played a pivotal role in the unfolding of events :
The foreign ministry of Peru lets public opinion know that, in concordance with the statutory responsibilities of the temporary presidency of UNASUR, at the behest of the Republic of Ecuador and after consulting member states, an extraordinary meeting of the Counsel of Foreign Ministers of the Union has been convened on Sunday August 19 in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador.
The meeting has been requested with the intention of considering the situation raised at the embassy of Ecuador in the United Kingdom.
The President of smaller the South American state of Suriname is currently ex dictator (1980-1987) Dési Bouterse. The controversial figure was the prime suspect in the notorious ‘December Murders‘, where 15 men critical of the military dictatorship were rounded up, ‘tried’ in an ad hoc court and summarily executed. Furthermore the Surinamese leader was convicted in Holland, in absentia, to 11 years for drug trafficking. Given that Bouterse was also the subject of a WikiLeaks campaign revealing his activitiy in the drugs trade up until 2006, it seems unlikely that he would be keen to lend the support of Suriname to Assange. Nevertheless, the recent OAS resolution to support Ecuador was passed by 23 votes (all South American states including Suriname) to 3 against (US, Canada and Trinidad & Tobago).
Another smaller state in South America Guyana is lead by President Donald Ramotar and the left leaning People’s Progresive Party. Ramotar has been relatively quiet on the issue, although the Guyana Chronicle suggest that both rape by Assange and conspiracy by the US are unlikely and that Assange may become a political martyr. Whether the former is true or not is up to the Swedish courts to decide, on the latter, perhaps we should keep an eye on the dossiers coming out from WikiLeaks.