Assange, Pinochet and Diplomatic Double-Dealing

CounterPunch, August 24-26, 2012

A decade ago, the British government of Labour prime minister Tony Blair decided to back President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq even though foreign office lawyers in London had warned that such an attack had no “legal basis in international law.” In the midst of sharp divisions in government and British society, the invasion went ahead in March 2003. The consequences were far-reaching and they undermined the Blair government’s authority at home. Limping thereafter, he resigned in June 2007, humbled and apologetic. War and the economy together played no mean part in Tony Blair’s fall in British politics and the Labour Party’s defeat three years later.

William Hague

A few days ago, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague personally approved a letter that was sent to Ecuador. Its details were taken as a threat to raid the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and drag out WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange for extradition to Sweden, where state prosecutors say they want to question him about complaints of sexual assault. Hague’s letter was delivered to Ecuador despite the “grave reservations of lawyers in his department.”

Speaking anonymously to the Independent newspaper, a senior British official said that “staff feared the move could provoke retaliatory attacks against British embassies overseas.” A large majority in the Organization of American States is up in arms. Outside the Americas too, Britain is struggling to find much sympathy for its stance. In soccer parlance, Prime Minister David Cameron’s center forward has scored a spectacular own goal.

While Julian Assange made a statement from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, attacking America’s “witch hunt” against WikiLeaks and journalistic freedom, several former mandarins of the British Diplomatic Service expressed serious misgivings over William Hague’s handling of the affair. Oliver Miles, a 40-year veteran, described the letter to Ecuador as a “big mistake,” because “it puts the British government in the position of asking for something illegitimate.” Former ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, commented that the Foreign Office had “slightly overreached themselves, for both legal and practical reasons.” And a former envoy to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, said, “You cannot simply legislate domestically and opt out of international law.”

Otherwise, the mainstream broadcast and print media continued to provide a running commentary of the whole affair. The coverage has been generally confused, selective, repetitive and often hostile to Assange and a small Latin American country’s decision to grant him asylum. The Economist, though, positioning itself on the other side, criticized Britain’s “ham-handed invocation of a never-used, 1987 law to insinuate that it could, eventually, have the right to enter the embassy.”

It is perhaps necessary at this point to take note of the London-based Bertha Foundation’s legal director Jennifer Robinson, who has described the British Foreign Office’s letter and the implicit threat as unprecedented––one which, if implemented, would force a profound change in the conduct of international diplomacy. Also important is to take a look at the concerns raised by prominent American feminist writer Naomi Wolf in an article titled “Something Rotten in the State of Sweden: 8 Big Problems with the ‘Case’ Against Assange.” Under her microscope is the entire Swedish legal system.

Why does Assange and others fear that Sweden would extradite him to the United States, where he could face the rest of his life in jail, even execution for publishing leaked official documents? Because in November 2006 the United Nations found Sweden guilty of violating the global torture ban. Swedish officials handed over Mohammed El Zari and Ahmed Agiza, two Egyptian asylum seekers, to CIA operatives in December 2001, to be rendered from Stockholm to Cairo. Both were tortured in Egypt. And, as Seamus Milne wrote in the Guardian, because of reports of a secret indictment against Assange by a U.S. federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia.

The law says that someone who has suffered persecution, or fears that he or she will suffer persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion may seek asylum. In the last few days, the United States has claimed that it does not recognize the concept of “diplomatic asylum.” Exactly what distinction is Washington trying to make between asylum, political asylum and diplomatic asylum is baffling. Assange was after all in the territory of a foreign country that granted him refuge. Let us look at some precedents.

Stalin’s daughter Svetlana sought asylum when she walked into the U.S. Embassy in Delhi in 1967. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn got asylum and lived in the United States for years before returning to Russia. Martina Navratilova, the Czech tennis player, took asylum in the U.S. in 1975. There are numerous instances when dissidents have been granted refuge in the United States and elsewhere. The concept is universal and depends on the sovereign decision of the country dealing with an asylum request.

Also worth examining is the British foreign secretary’s assertion that the United Kingdom has a “binding obligation” to extradite Assange to Sweden. Let us, for a moment, go back to October 1998. Chile’s former military dictator Augusto Pinochet was visiting London for medical treatment. A Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon, now on Assange’s legal team, issued an arrest warrant for Pinochet on charges arising out of crimes against humanity in Chile. Pinochet was arrested a few days later in Britain, where he would spend more than a year in judicial custody, fighting extradition to Spain. The House of Lords, then Britain’s highest court, ruled that Pinochet could indeed be handed over to the Spanish judicial authorities, because crimes such as torture could not be protected by immunity.

The British government nonetheless allowed Pinochet to return to Chile in March 2000 on health grounds. The law was clear, but for Britain’s Labour government at the time there was no “binding obligation” to extradite Pinochet to Spain. Chile under Pinochet had backed the United Kingdom during the brief Falklands war with Argentina. Moreover, he and Britain’s former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher were admirers of each other. There was, after all, a way out for Pinochet to return home instead of being extradited to Spain.

Writing about the essence of rule of law and government’s legitimacy, Thomas Hobbes in his seventeenth-century work Leviathan observed: “The law is the public conscience.”

What conscience?

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American Stingers’ First Casualty is Diplomacy: Syria’s Parallels with Afghanistan

CounterPunch, August 13, 2012

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

President Obama’s order to supply CIA aid to anti-government forces in Syria has echoes of an earlier secret order signed by President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, in July 1979. Carter’s fateful decision was the start of a CIA-led operation to back Mujahideen groups then fighting the Communist government in Afghanistan. As I discuss the episode in my book Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (chapters 7 & 8), the operation, launched with a modest aid package, became a multi-billion dollar war project against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet Union, whose forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following year, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who went for broke, pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces to the bitter end.

Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later claimed that it was done on his recommendation, and that the motive was to lure Soviet forces into Afghanistan to give the Kremlin “its Vietnam.” The Soviets’ humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism and the rise of the Taliban triggered a chain reaction with worldwide consequences. President Obama’s decision to intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, who include fundamentalist Islamic fighters, points to history repeating itself. Brzezinski, now in his 85th year, still visits Washington’s corridors of power. And General David Petraeus, a formidable warrior, is director of the CIA.

Three decades on, it seems likely that President Carter’s motive behind signing the secret order to provide aid to the Mujahideen was to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, thus keeping their military away from Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew America’s proxy, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. If that was indeed the plan, then the Soviet leadership fell right into the Afghan trap.

China was then part of the U.S.-led alliance against the Soviets. Now Beijing and Moscow stand together against Washington as the conflict in Syria escalates. Otherwise, the U.S.-led alliance has many of the old players––the much enlarged European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others in the Sunni bloc in the Arab world. And Turkey, which is now the base for the anti-Assad forces, channeling help to them. Turkey’s Islamist government plays a crucial role in Syria, like Pakistan in the 1980s during America’s proxy war in Afghanistan.

In Washington, an American official told Reuters that “the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.” And a few days before, the news agency reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had established a “nerve center” in Adana in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to coordinate their activities. The place is home to America’s Incirlik air base and military and intelligence services.

According to NBC News a few days ago, the rebel Free Syrian Army has acquired American MANPAD Stinger missiles via Turkey, clearly to target Syrian government aircraft. It reminds of President Reagan’s decision in the mid-1980s to supply Stingers to Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft. Their use was first reported in 1987 and it soon emerged that the heat-seeking weapons were so accurate that they were hitting three out of four aircraft in Afghanistan. As I have discussed in my book Breeding Ground, some of the hundreds of Stingers were likely to have been passed on to the Taliban and their allies after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan and the last Communist government in Kabul collapsed in 1992.

In recent months, American and European officials have been busy feeding information to media outlets that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main sources of weapons to rebels in Syria through Turkey. The pattern is consistent with the long-standing Saudi policy to keep Islamists out of Saudi Arabia itself, lest they challenge the ruling family. Long-term lessons of proxy wars remain unheeded for immediate perilous “gains.”

Reports of the Obama administration sending Stinger missiles to Syrian rebels carry the first indication that non-state players now have advanced U.S. weaponry in the Middle East. That Washington is in such a cozy alliance with forces including Islamists soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Obama’s personal order is as incredible as it is consistent with follies of the past. The present will define the future again.

The situation in Egypt is becoming explosive. The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula by “suspected Islamists,” and violence thereafter, represent challenges on several fronts for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Israel has been quick to blame Islamic militants in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the Egyptian president. For its part, the Brotherhood has pointed the finger at Israel’s secret service Mossad, claiming it is a plot to thwart Morsi’s presidency. These developments cast a shadow over Morsi’s relations with Hamas and, at the same time, increase his dependence on the Egyptian armed forces to quell the unrest, thereby undermining his authority. Murderous optimism of powerful and suicidal pessimism of victims in an oppressive environment blight the lives of many.

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