The case of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who has been living in the Ecuadoran embassy in London for more than three years to avoid extradition to Sweden to face a sexual-assault investigation, should reopen debate on the often ineffectual human-rights machinery of the United Nations, which allows governments to ignore or defy nonbinding and unenforceable decisions.
In early February, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, which falls under the purview of the United Nations Human Rights Council, released a decision made last fall that Assange, after more than five years of loss of liberty—first in a British prison, then under house arrest and finally sequestered in the Ecuadoran mission in London under a grant of diplomatic asylum by the Ecuadoran government—has been deprived of his rights under accepted international humanitarian law. Assange remains in the Ecuadoran embassy because, as he has long argued, if he were released to Sweden, which has secured a European warrant for his arrest, he could be extradited to the United States to face persecution and possible physical and mental harm, given that his case is still under investigation it here for his involvement in the release of stolen and leaked American documents.
“Let’s be clear,” Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a commentary following the release of the decision. “The issue is not Assange fleeing Swedish justice; he has continually expressed his willingness to be investigated by Sweden. What he won’t do is risk eventual extradition to the United States, which would like to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. That is because WikiLeaks revealed the embarrassing diplomatic cables that Chelsea Manning leaked. And if you look at Manning’s fate, Assange has plenty to fear. Manning was abused in pretrial detention, denied the defense that the public interest justified her disclosures, and sentenced to 35 years. A secret US grand jury has been investigating Assange on related Espionage Act charges for close to five years. Neither Sweden nor the UK will promise Assange he won’t be extradited, and both are close US allies in national security and intelligence affairs.”
The Working Group rejects the claim by Britain and Sweden that Assange remains in the diplomatic mission of his own volition. It points to the constant surveillance around the mission and repeated statements from the British government saying unequivocally that Assange would be arrested, and deported to Sweden, if he left the premises. Sweden has said there is no link in this case to extradition, which would be a separate matter and process that has not arisen in this case.