By Kristee Boyd
The U.S. has reportedly prepared an arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirming that arresting Assange is a “priority” for his department. The possibility that Julian Assange might be arrested has grave implications, not just for him, but for all of us.
Glen Greenwald offered an interesting take on this news when he appeared immediately afterwards on Democracy Now. He said that governments often target an unpopular person or organisation when they want to “try and abridge core freedoms” as they will receive less resistance from the general public than if they went after a more popular public figure. Once this core freedom has been revoked in one case, it sets a precedent for future cases. Greenwald was referring to basic Press Freedom; but Assange’s arrest warrant and current detention, impact upon a host of basic human rights.
Let’s begin with Assange’s First Amendment rights, which CIA Director Mike Pompeo explicitly stated Assange is not entitled to, as he is not a U.S. citizen. It is always deeply concerning when leaders attempt to find loopholes in our international legal systems in order to justify the denial of basic human rights. Unfortunately, this tactic has been used repeatedly in recent years to justify atrocities of the U.S. government. The military guards at Abu Ghraib were informed that its prisoners were not protected by the Geneva Convention, leaving room for a plethora of cruel and inhumane treatment. Specific to U.S. Constitutional protections, prisoners of the ‘War on Terror’ in Guantanamo and Bagram were repeatedly denied their right to speak under the First Amendment and their rights regarding due process and protection against unlawful detention, based on the argument that they were not U.S. citizens.
However, this argument has repeatedly been overturned in cases brought before the U.S. Supreme court, with the Court making it clear that non-U.S. citizens are protected by the Constitution. Yes, WikiLeaks habitually releases classified information, as do many other news publishers. In fact, the Obama administration, which was known to take a hostile stance towards whistle-blowers, criminally investigated WikiLeaks and Assange in an attempt to prosecute, but concluded that it simply could not prosecute Assange without also prosecuting other journalists and news organisations, including the Times and the Guardian, which published the same confidential information.
In short, the knock-on effect in terms of impact on press freedom was considered by the Obama administration to be too high a price to pay, no matter how badly it wanted to arrest Assange. Assange’s disclosures through WikiLeaks are indeed legally protected through press freedom which is safe-guarded, not only by the First Amendment but in International Human Rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that, “Everyone has the right to…seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Given the malice that Trump has repeatedly expressed towards the U.S. media, it is a very dangerous notion that his administration might use WikiLeaks as a gateway to begin to arrest journalists and trample basic press freedoms.
Although Sweden has now withdrawn its arrest warrant, Assange remains in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he currently has political asylum. British authorities have made it clear that he will be arrested if he leaves. They also refuse to clarify whether or not they have received an extradition warrant from the U.S. Political asylum is a basic Human Right, guaranteed through a number of core Human Rights instruments such as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol. Ecuador granted Assange asylum based on the real possibility that he could be politically persecuted if extradited to the U.S. So what did Pompeo mean by the threatening tone of his speech in stating “We have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us….It ends now.” Does the U.S. honestly plan to use force to remove Assange from his place of political asylum, in violation of internationally-recognised human rights obligations? Even as the situation currently stands, the U.N. has found that Assange is being arbitrarily detained and is entitled to compensation for his, thus-far, five years in detention.
Yes, Glen Greenwald is right that a lot of people don’t particularly like Julian Assange. On a personal level, he comes across as cold and argumentative in interviews, repeatedly speaking over even high profile journalists who support his case. And despite the fact that the allegations of sexual assault against him were extremely dubious to begin with, Assange has certainly not endeared himself to us in his overall attitude to sexual relationships with women. On a broader level, unlike Edward Snowden who disclosed secret documents to a very select group of experienced journalists, allowing them the discretion to reveal what they deemed appropriate, WikiLeaks continues to dump enormous caches of confidential documents, which has at times revealed damaging personal information such as sexual orientation and medical records of ordinary citizens. However, WikiLeaks is a news media organisation and Julian Assange is a journalist, who publishes information that helps to keep systems of power accountable for their actions. It is crucial that we don’t let dislike for the man blind us to the fact that arresting Assange and removing him from his place of political asylum would have serious implications for all of us, in terms of access to our fundamental rights and freedoms.