UK Rejects UN Ruling that Assange Detention Is Illegal
After the UN finds Assange to be arbitrarily detained, Assange attorney Carey Shenkman explains how the UK is undermining the authority of the UN while simultaneously relying on it to release detained UK citizens
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
After months of investigating, the United Nations has declared that the UK and Sweden have arbitrarily detained WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange has been held up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for more than three and a half years as he fights extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning on sexual assault allegations. Let’s take a listen to what Assange had to say after the announcement.
JULIAN ASSANGE: I’m being detained now without charge in this country, the United Kingdom, for five and a half years. That’s five and a half years where I’ve had great difficulty seeing my family, and seeing my children. Today that detention without charge has been found by the highest organization in the United Nations that is, has the jurisdiction for considering the rights of detained persons to be unlawful.
DESVARIEUX: Here to discuss the UN’s ruling and its significance is Carey Shenkman. Carey is a human rights attorney who’s been working on this case with a Real News regular, Michael Ratner, who is also the President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Thank you so much for joining us, Carey.
CAREY SHENKMAN: Thank you, it’s wonderful to be on the show again.
DESVARIEUX: So, Carey, in the wake of the UN ruling, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, he’s called the decision ridiculous, rejecting it outright. What do you make of that?
SHENKMAN: Well, we’re really astonished to hear that news. This was a 16-month independent investigation that took into account all the evidence submitted by Sweden and the UK. Both states had a chance to submit their arguments. They made their arguments. And the UN decided. So first of all, it’s very strange to, to play in a game if you’re not going to stick with the outcome and cherry pick the decisions that you want to adhere to.
More fundamentally, there’s something very disturbing about a major Western European power shaking off a decision from the Working Group. This is, this is, as our client pointed out, the most respected body on detention in the UN and globally. And this is the authority on issues of detention. So when Western powers have nationals detained, they look to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to fix the situation. One [point]–.
DESVARIEUX: Give us a quick example.
SHENKMAN: Yeah, so one example would be the case of the Washington Post journalist who was detained in Iran. One of the first things the Post did was file an urgent petition to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The group was also instrumental in the release of the president of Maldives.
So I think the troublesome path that the UK is going down, that later on if UK, Swedish, or other Western nationals are detained in [inaud.] states, and Western governments want to put pressure on those states for their release from arbitrary detention, then those, those so-called rogue states can simply say, well, you know, the UK didn’t follow the Working Group in the Assange case, so why do we have to do that? There’s a sense of very troublesome precedent [inaud.] international obligations.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. All right. To piggyback off the last question, I want to get a sense of the United Nations authority in all of this. So in the wake of the UK intransigence, first of all, how binding is this decision, and can the UN do anything to sort of twist the UK’s arm into getting Assange released?
SHENKMAN: So, first of all, both states, the UK and Sweden, participated and accepted the jurisdiction of the Working Group. So as I said, it’s very strange to say that you’re going to participate in a process and ignore the outcome.
Following that, both states do have obligations under the International Covenant of [inaud.] Political Rights, the European Convention of Human Rights, the Universal Declaration. And these are sources of international law for the Working Group. It has follow-up procedures, and also Working Group opinions are relied upon by international tribunals. So for instance, when the European Court of Human Rights, which is a forum that is, has expressed appellate power over European states on human rights issues. When the European court gets a case on the detention, quite often it will rely on the opinions of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
The members of the Working Group are widely considered experts at the top of this field. They range from academia to practice in international tribunals, have written books, lecture. Extremely highly qualified. And not only are they determining cases, they are really clarifying and setting the law for detention. So it is, it is actually extremely significant, extremely significant for the UK and Sweden to even consider departing from a decision from the Working Group.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Let’s move on and talk about some reactions to this news. We have Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. He’s promised to continue to protect Assange, although it looks like the UK is not letting up any time soon. What are Assange’s legal options, you representing him, moving forward?
SHENKMAN: I think in terms of the next steps, for one, Assange is still suffering from severe shoulder pain, and needs to get an MRI and necessary medical treatment for that. Many months ago he requested access to a hospital, which the UK denied. They essentially said that he has to either have his asylum or go to a hospital, but he can’t have both, which is unacceptable in terms of his rights. Human rights don’t work that way.
And following that, the medical treatment, he needs to have his passport returned and have, as the UN body has decided, he has to have his freedom of movement back in a way that respects his safety. I might actually present–I just want to, one snippet from their opinion. That the UK and its [inaud.] really need to respect his asylum. The UN body held, quote, the grant itself, that’s the asylum, the grant itself and the fear of persecution on the part of Mr. Assange, based on the possibility of extradition, should have been given fuller consideration, end quote.
So what that means is that the UN is admonishing both states for failing to take into consideration Assange’s asylum. And keep in mind, that asylum is not about the UK. It’s not about Sweden. That asylum is about the United States, where there continues to be an unprecedented attempt to prosecute Assange and WikiLeaks, on part of journalistic activities that are protected under international human rights law and the First Amendment in the United States.
DESVARIEUX: Yes. But what’s your next step, Carey? I’m trying to get a sense, legally. What are you advising him, what’s the next step?
SHENKMAN: Well, I mean, the opinion just came out this morning. So our legal team is still reviewing the options that are, that are created by this decision. But I think–but I think it certainly is a game changer on the legal landscape. Because you have a very respected authority that is, that is decisive in many other fora, whether they be domestic and international.
So our very first step is to look to the States to implement this decision, and accord with their international legal obligations. And if they fail to do that in some time–I would caution folks not to get discouraged. This is the first day. And oftentimes with the negotiations, like with the journalist in Iran, with the Maldives case, these cases take some time to implement. So you may not necessarily see a result within just some hours of the decision being handed down. But I think once the dust settles I think it certainly will open paths, whether they be legal or whether they be negotiation.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Carey Shenkman, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure having you on the program.
SHENKMAN: Thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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