Julian Assange Saga: The UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruling

In February 2016, the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has held that Julian Assange’s detention should be brought to an end and his physical integrity and freedom of movement should be respected. Also, it wanted Assange to be afforded with the right to compensation. Currently Assange is in detention at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Who is Julian Assange?

Julian Assange, founder of wikileaks, is an Australian citizen. On wikileaks, which he founded in 2006, he published confidential documents and images, including footage showing US soldiers shooting 18 civilians from a helicopter in Iraq in the year 2010. Later in the same year, Assange was charged by two women that he had sexually assaulted them while he was in Sweden to deliver a lecture. Subsequently, Sweden issued an international arrest warrant against Assange and he was detained in the UK.

Being under house arrest, he fought against his extradition and when the UK Supreme Court in 2012 dismissed his plea against extradition to Sweden, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and after two months he was granted diplomatic asylum by that country.

What are Diplomatic Immunity and Diplomatic Asylum?

Diplomatic immunity is a legal immunity and a policy held between governments that ensure that diplomats are given safe passage and are considered not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under the host country’s laws, but they can still be expelled.  Diplomatic Immunity finds its origin from as international law in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), though the concept and custom have a much longer history. Diplomatic immunity as an institution developed to allow for the maintenance of government relations, including during periods of difficulties and even armed conflict.

Diplomatic Asylum

Diplomatic asylum is not established in any international law. It derives its existence from Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also enshrine this law. The International Court of Justice has emphasised that in the absence of treaty or customary rules to the contrary, a decision by a mission to grant asylum involves a derogation from the sovereignty of the receiving state. The Organization of American States agreed a convention in 1954.

In a broad sense, according to the UN, it is protection which is granted by a country outside its own borders, and particularly through its diplomatic missions.

How diplomatic immunity helps Assange?

As per the customs, local police and security forces are not permitted to enter an embassy unless they have the express permission of the ambassador – even though the embassy remains the territory of the host nation. This rule was set out in 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations when it codified a custom in place for centuries by establishing the “rule of inviolability”.

Why Assange does not want to be extradited to Sweden?

Although, Sweden has clarified that it wants to extradite Assange only to try him for the charges of rape, Assange fears that after extradition to Sweden, he may be further extradited to the US and put on trial for releasing secret and classified information by the US. At the backdrop, the US government has already stated that the information leaked by Julian Assange has put the lives of its forces at a greater risk.

Why Ecuador gave political asylum to Julian Assange?

Assange has very friendly relations with Ecuador. Further, Ecuador believes that Julian Assange’s rights were violated during the investigation against him. According to Ecuador, as the UK and Sweden have failed to guarantee that he will be not extradited, it fears that he may further face violation of his rights including political persecution at the hands of the US. Also, the Ecuador got irked by a cable released by Wikileaks in 2011 which showed that the US ambassador had said the President of Ecuador Correa was aware of charges of corruption against a top official who was later promoted. In response to the cable, Ecuador expelled the US ambassador from its soil.

What is UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention? And what does the panel do?

The UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was established in 1991 to monitor human rights violations and consists of five legal experts who are chosen from around the world. It is a UN mandated body and comes under the purview of UN Human Rights Council. It examines the legality of arbitrary imprisonment and detention in violation of international human rights law and till date has made hundreds of such rulings. It has dealt with many high profile complaints and the most prominent ones are that of Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who recently got released in Iran.

What were the findings of the UN Panel?

In September 2014, Assange made a complaint to the UN about his arbitrary detention. The complaint on behalf of Assange made to the Panel claimed that Assange had been deprived of his liberty for an unacceptable period of time.

Out of the five members in the Panel, one member belonging to Australia did not participate in the deliberation as Assange is also an Australian citizen. Another member disagreed with the majority and considered that Assange’s detention falls outside the mandate of the Working Group. The findings of the majority of the panel are as follows:

  • The panel deems the deprivation of Assange’s liberty as arbitrary and held that he was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and UK.
  • Assange is entitled to his freedom of movement and to compensation and has been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty.
  • The panel requested Sweden and UK to assess the situation and ensure safety and physical integrity of Assange and to facilitate the exercise of his rights guaranteed by the international norms on detention, particularly his right to freedom of movement.
  • The panel has stated that the methods used in the case are disproportionate and Assange has been denied human, civil and political rights.

Inability of the Swedish government to question Assange in UK, which he had repeatedly asked for and the lack of arrangements to question him via videoconferencing etc., remained the primary basis for the findings of the Working Group.

What is the present position of charges against Assange and what are the implications of the UN’s ruling?

In 2015, Sweden’s prosecutors dropped the sexual assault charges against Assange after running out of time to bring out charges against him. But, as of now, Assange still faces the more serious charges of rape against him. It should be noted that the rape charges against Assange are not due to expire until 2020.

As the findings of the Working Group are not binding, the UK and Sweden are still sticking to their earlier stands. Sweden has said that the panel’s findings will have no formal impact on its ongoing investigation. For its part, UK has said it still continues to have the legal obligation to extradite Assange and it will not provide him safe passage out of the country to fly to Ecuador and would arrest him if he steps out of the embassy. Ecuador’s foreign minister has urged UK to respect the sovereign decision of his country.

Escalating cost of confinement for UK

The call for compensation has particularly angered the UK, as the cost of policing Assange’s confinement has already reached 12.6 million euros, which has made the Scotland Yard to make a statement that it would no longer station officers outside the embassy and would deploy a number of overt and covert tactics to arrest him.