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A United Nations panel ruled on Friday in favor of the infamous Australian founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, on the basis that he had been “arbitrarily detained, and should be allowed to walk free and compensated for his deprivation of liberty.”
“[It was a] really significant victory that brought a smile to my face,” stated Assange, who has been detained since his initial arrest in 2010.
The Panel, more officially known as the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, found that Assange had been subjected to “different forms of deprivation and liberty.”
Assange is no stranger to run-ins with international law. After founding WikiLeaks, a highly controversial publisher of confidential documents and media, in 2006, he made international headlines in 2010 when he published footage of American soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians dead from a helicopter. Later that year he was detained in the UK after the Swedish government issued an arrest warrant over sexual assault and rape claims against him. He spent the following months on house arrest in a rural English town.
In June 2012, the UK Supreme Court dismissed Assange’s application to re-open the appeal and ruled that extradition was justified. Just a few days later he was granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean government at its embassy, where British authorities could not legally arrest him due to diplomatic protocol. To this day Assange remains in the Ecuadorean embassy due to the fear of extradition from the UK to Sweden, and eventually to the US, where he would likely be put on trial for WikiLeaks.
Having a team of UN legal experts now on Assange’s side perhaps appears to be a milestone success in his arduous battle with the law, but does the UN panel’s decision really mean anything?
The short answer: No.
In reality, the findings likely have little to no significance for Assange, and the matter is likely to continue unless the Swedish government drops it. The UN panel does not have the authority to demand the release of any detainee, and often times its findings are blatantly ignored by the governments in question.
Both Swedish and British officials have expressed utmost disregard for the rulings; British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond was quoted in saying, “This is frankly a ridiculous finding by the Working Group and we reject it.” Furthermore, the Metropolitan police have stated that Assange will still be arrested, should he leave the Ecuadorean embassy at any time. Swedish prosecutors have also stated that the findings have no bearing on the rape investigation under Swedish law, signifying that an arrest and subsequent extradition to Sweden and the US is inevitable upon his departure from the embassy.
Is Assange doomed to experience a similar fate to that of Chelsea Manning, the former US intelligence analyst who leaked hundreds of thousands of top-secret information to WikiLeaks and was consequently sentenced to 35 years in prison?
And now perhaps a more thought-provoking question to add to the debate: should the public leaking of confidential government documents even be declared illegal in the first place and consequently punishable by long-term imprisonment?
The primary argument against decriminalizing large-scale information leaks is the idea that they put lives at risk. The Telegraph argued in this very same sentiment, citing that the “publication of classified documents poses danger to the soldiers and those who collaborate with them.”
Contrary to this belief, however, assessments of the effects of WikiLeaks have found that little to no damage has actually resulted from it. The Guardian quoted a Senior Counter-intelligence Officer at Information Review Task Force in stating that they have “uncovered no specific examples of anyone who had lost his or her life in reprisals that followed the publication of the disclosures on the internet.”
In fact, more than two-dozen “damage assessments” were employed by the Department of State and the Department of Defense, among others, in which the damage was reported to be “minimal or speculative at best.”
So why then has the US government and its allies expressed such vehement disapproval over the leaking of these top-secret files if evidently they have not caused any significant harm? In the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the matter:
“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
Bluntly put, the information leaks were understandably an embarrassment to the Obama administration.
Trevor Timm, Executive Director at Freedom of the Press highlighted an interesting thought on the case:
“We should always be open to the possibility that damage occurred. Just like we should be open to the possibility of weighing the public interest against that damage to decide.”
In the age of information sharing, Julian Assange’s case is likely a foreshadowing of matters to come, but it is important, perhaps more now than ever, to spark demand for a more transparent diplomacy.
Photo courtesy of Pando.com