Thursday 16 August 2012

What Sun Yat-Sen has to tell us about the Assange case

Anyone following the case of Julian Assange, currently in hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy, will have found out that he has today been offered asylum by Ecuador.

Just like many people who have followed this case, I've gone from being sympathetic to Assange to being rather dubious of his version of events. Particularly the argument that he should not be extradited to Sweden because he may be extradited from there to the United States is deeply unconvincing, for the very simple reason that it would be much easier to just extradite him directly from the UK.

All the same, the idea that, in order to arrest him and execute his extradition to Ecuador, the UK government might revoke the diplomatic status of the Ecuadorian embassy is, frankly, about as misguided as it is possible to be. The effect of doing so would be to render any aid the UK's diplomatic missions abroad might lend to people in genuine need of shelter utterly ineffective. All the authorities in Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, Damascus, Havana, Minsk, or Caracas need do is point to the actions of the UK government in this case, close our embassy, and drag whoever it was that was misguided enough to place their trust in the UK off to a dismal fate.

Moreover, the name of Britain would be mud across the continent of South America and in much of the rest of the world. Political capital is already being made out of this case by the authorities in Quito.

The reasons why the law under which this revocation would be carried out was enacted go back to the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher (pictured above) by a gunman firing at demonstrators from the window of the Libyan embassy in London in 1984. In that incident, the siege of the embassy (and a counter-siege of the British embassy in Tripoli, as well as the taking hostage of British citizens in Libya) was eventually resolved by the government allowing the people responsible for WPC Fletcher's murder to leave the country, and then breaking off relations with Libya.

This suggests a clear course of action which appears the most advisable given the circumstances. Let Assange go to Ecuador. Let the tax-payers keep his bail-money. Let Ecuador then deal with the problems of sheltering this man just as France and Switzerland have dealt with the problems of sheltering Roman Polanski. Let the Swedish government, who have historically acknowledged either few or no obligations to the UK, priding themselves in their even-handed neutrality in all matters, make shift for themselves.

This option, though, seems to have been fore-closed by the British government's statement that they are prevented from doing so by a 'binding obligation' to Sweden. This, if it is genuinely the case, is very unfortunate.

If, due to European legislation, this approach is no longer open to the government, then a long, hard reassessment of the legislation that binds the hands of the UK government in this fashion is necessary. Most will be confused as to why exactly in 1984 it was possible, given the awful circumstances, to allow people wanted for the cold-blooded murder of a British police officer to leave the country whilst, today, it is impossible for someone wanted for questioning in another country to be allowed to go to a third one to avoid what has already become a diplomatic disaster.

It is, of course, possible that significant diplomatic pressure may be brought to bear on Ecuador to make the Ecuadorian authorities hand Assange over. This was, after all, what happened when, in very different circumstances, Sun Yat-Sen (pictured above, source here), future father of the Chinese revolution, but then just a doctor living in exile, was kidnapped and held at the Chinese embassy in London. Yet, the negative consequences of doing so are suggested by Sun's story. Here's how Marie-Claire Bergere described what happened:

"On 16 October 1896, Sun Yat-sen arose from praying in his guarded room at the Legation. He later wrote that he felt a calmness and hope that made him realise that his prayer was answered. He renewed his attempts to persuade an English porter, Cole, who brought his food, to take a message to his friend Dr Cantlie, and this time the porter agreed to do so. On receiving the news Dr Cantlie informed Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office, which took no relevant action. He then alerted The Times which waited to see what the Foreign Office would do. Aware of this, the Foreign Office began to pressure Macartney, warning that The Times was holding the story. Cantlie finally applied to an Old Bailey judge for a writ of habeas corpus against the Legation. The newspaper The Globe heard of this and broke the news of Sun's kidnapping on 22 October 1896. The next day all the London newspapers published the story. Soon angry Londoners and journalists surrounded the Chinese Legation clamouring for Sun's release. In the afternoon of 23 October Sun was freed. The following day he wrote a letter to The Times thanking its readers for their support, public spiritedness and love of justice. . . Sun's kidnapping made him famous and later facilitated his fund-raising activities around the world..."
Whilst some commentators may be surprised to learn that the "evil foreign media" once intervened to rescue the father of the Chinese revolution, the point to be learned for today's case is that there really doesn't seem to be any 'up' in this for the British government. A diplomatic battle between the UK and Ecuador ending in Assange being lead away in hand cuffs from the Ecuadorian embassy (if this may be acheived), will only result in even greater notoriety for Assange and even more diplomatic back-lash against Britain. 


justrecently said...

I believe that just the mere threat to make use of the 1984 act is a damp squib already, Foarp. Not even the East German government (during the 1989 refugee crisis) or the PRC government (in Fang Lizhi's and his wife's case, or in Chen Guangcheng's case) would cross this limit. I'm getting the impression that the current government's attitude towards rules becomes compromised as soon as such rules turn out to be somewhat inconvenient. I'm not sure if Blair was trustworthier, but I don't think that blunders like these would have happened to John Major.

Gilman Grundy said...

I have to say I think you may be right, JR. There's simply no way in which I can see making these kind of threats working. I'm a great believer in the idea that making threats one has no intention of carrying out is foolish - and that's exactly what is being done in this case.

The 1987 act was brought in in reaction to a case where embassy staff sprayed the streets around them with machine gun fire, NOT to effect the arrest of someone wanted for extradition for questioning. The idea of using the act, or even threatening to use the act, is irresponsible.

The other thing that troubles me about this case is - where are the Swedes? It is for them that we are ruining our reputation and expending our diplomatic capital, yet they have not said a word since Assange fled to the embassy. Just why should Britain take all the heat in this case? Have they nothing to say?

justrecently said...

I think Sweden won't say much if Assange stays in the Ecuadorian embassy for the rest of his life either, Foarp. I know - Assange enjoys cult status among his followers, and the heat from them may not be easy to take, either. But I believe that a principled stance - something like "we will live up to our obligations, but part of these obligations is respect for diplomatic immunity" - will convince reasonable people. That's all one can do.

Tai De said...

I think your question about the Swedes is justified, but I don't understand the British government's threat.

The Swedish bureaucracy doesn't want to make mistakes, and every careerist wants to excel. Maybe therefore, Sweden didn't simply send staff to Britain to question Assange there. They wanted to avoid a storm of indignation at home.

Britain plays in a different league than Sweden. The country that fought against the European mainland's dictators during the past 250 years deserves more trust than the Cameron government. The government is just a flash in the pan. I'm sure that rule of laW and the British public, with a sense of justice, will make it impossible for the government to act on its threats. That's not great, but better than if the government acts in accordance with its threat.

James said...

Interesting parallels with Sun, G. thought you threaded em in quite neatly.

While I understand your take on making hollow threats, in this day and age when governments hardly ever follow through on even campaign pledges, I don't think this can be called foolish. At least not in the sense that it will come back to bite them in the arse.

Do you think much of the public understands or really cares about what's at stake here? This current admin, in particular, has got (and will get) away with much worse on issues that people really do care about, so why would they care about sounding off and then backpedalling on this?