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?

[END]

Tony Blair’s testimony before the Iraq war inquiry

I watched British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s six-hour testimony before the Iraq inquiry in London today (January 29, 2010). It was a stubborn performance in his own defense and that of his close friend and ally, former US President George W Bush. Here are ten points made by Blair that struck me particularly:

  1. Blair said he had told Bush from the start that if the United States went to war in Iraq he would be with him.
  2. He did what was right in joining the invasion and would do it again.  
  3. George W Bush decided UN backing for the invasion was not necessary.
  4. Russia and France, in Blair’s view, changed their position which prevented the second United Nations resolution authorizing force.
  5. The British cabinet did not want to be part of the legal debate on the Iraq invasion – The inquiry panel thought it should have been.
  6. Blair asserted that a humanitarian crisis after the invasion of Iraq was avoided – The evidence is contrary and overwhelming.
  7. He claimed that Iran today posed a greater threat than in 2003. He indicated that a similar military action might now be necessary against Iran.
  8. Claimed that extensive preparations had been made for the aftermath of the invasion, until al Qaeda and Iran began to play the role they did.
  9. What became clear in time [in answering questions about multi-layered conflict, including civil war] was not a lack of resources but a lack of security.
  10. At the end, the Iraq inquiry Chairman, Sir John Chilcot, asked Blair whether he had any regrets for the very high cost of invading Iraq, including deaths of British troops and Iraqi civilians. Blair had no regrets.

The inquiry chairman hinted that Blair might be called again before the panel. As the day’s proceedings ended, the former prime minister was booed from the public gallery and there were shouts of ‘come on’, ‘liar’ and ‘murderer’. Outside, there were demonstrations throughout the day.

There are those who feel Blair’s cross-examination should have been tougher. My view is that the panel’s questioning was pointed, persistent and tough.

It revealed the mindset that remains unaltered nearly seven years after he and George W Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, with disastrous consequences.

British government legal experts break ranks with Tony Blair on Iraq war

Seventy-two hours before Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair appears at the Iraq inquiry in London, pressure is piling up on Blair and his close advisers who took the decision to join President George W Bush in launching the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

On Tuesday (January 26, 2010) the senior government lawyer at the time, Sir Michal Wood, told the inquiry in a written statement that the invasion of Iraq had “no legal basis in international law”. Sir Michael was the highest-ranking legal adviser at the British Foreign Office when Iraq was invaded.

In his statement, he said he disagreed with the advice of the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith.

Sir Michael considered the use of military force in March 2003 to be ‘contrary to international law’, but said that Jack Straw, then foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government, rejected the advice. Instead, Mr Straw told the US Vice President Dick Cheney that Britain would ‘prefer’ a second UN resolution, but it would be ‘OK’ if they tried and failed [in getting the resolution passed in the Security Council].

Sir Michael disclosed: “He [foreign secretary] took the view that I was being very dogmatic and that international law was pretty vague and that he wasn’t used to people taking such a firm position. When he [Straw] had been at the Home Office, he had often been advised things were unlawful but he had gone ahead anyway and won in the courts.”

Sir Michael told the Iraq inquiry that this was probably the first and only occasion that a minister rejected his legal advice in this way.

Sir Michael’s deputy at the Foreign Office was Elizabeth Wilmshurst. She followed him to the Iraq inquiry. She disclosed that the opinion of the entire legal team was unanimous that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal [without specific UN approval for the use of force]. She said the view among civil service officials was that an invasion without such legal basis would be a ‘nightmare scenario’.

Wilmshurst said that she regarded the invasion of Iraq illegal and therefore did not feel able to continue in her post. Wilmshurst decided to leave government. Explaining her decision, she said she would have been required to ‘support and maintain the Government’s position’ in international forums. The rules of international law on the use of force by States are at the heart of international law.

Wilmshurst said: “Collective security, as opposed to unilateral military action, was a central purpose of the Charter of the United Nations. Acting contrary to the Charter, as I perceived the Government to be doing, would have the consequence of damaging the United Kingdom’s reputation as a State committed to the rule of law in international relations and to the United Nations.”

The Iraq inquiry in the United Kingdom continues in the wake of the recent Dutch inquiry, which concluded that the Netherland’s political support for the 2003 invasion had no legal basis. That, and the weight of evidence emerging in London, would, in my view, make it very difficult for the UK inquiry to come out with a conclusion without an acknowledgement of that being the case.

The Iraq inquiry in Britain is to continue beyond May 2010, by when a general election is due. The consequences of the decision to go to war in Iraq will undoubtedly be a significant topic of the political debate in the run up to the election.

In Iraq itself, a suicide car bomber killed at least 18 people and injured around 80 others at a government forensics laboratory in Baghdad on Tuesday. The latest attack came as funerals were taking place of victims of the previous day’s bomb attacks, killing more than 35 people. The BBC correspondent in the Iraqi capital, Jim Muir, says these attacks are clearly coordinated and appear to be aimed at undermining security as Iraq prepares for a general election in March.