|Press freedom and colonial bondage: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the safe haven of Ecuador embassy in London (top); Ecuadorians vent their anger at the British Embassy in Quito, Ecuador|
LONDON: An Australian in Britain accused of sexual offences in Sweden, but fearing extradition to the United States, seeks asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London and provokes a nationalist reaction more than 9,000 kilometers away in South America. Global interconnectedness could not get more convoluted, but a look back at history helps situate the incongruity in context.
It seems an unlikely course, but where the Australian in question, the open-government campaigner and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is concerned, the far-flung quest is in keeping with his knack of springing surprises and setting in train events with repercussions well beyond what he may have intended.
Assange headed to the Ecuadorean embassy in June, where he remains holed up, as Britain and Ecuador are unable to reach agreement on terms for his leaving the mission. Just this week the English courts upped the pressure by ordering Assange’s supporters who put up $135,000 for his bail to forfeit their money. Ecuador and the United States have generally poor relations, none of which were improved by WikiLeaks, the online site that invites whistle blowers to submit documents related to government or corporate malfeasance.
In April 2011, Quito expelled US Ambassador Heather Hodges after WikiLeaks had published a confidential diplomatic cable in which she reported that President Rafael Correa knew about allegations of corruption against a senior policeman before an appointment. The US responded in kind by expelling Ecuador’s Ambassador, Luis Gallegos. Correa, never well-disposed to Washington, resents what he suspects is a long history of US interference in his country’s internal affairs. For its part, Washington regards Correa as a close ally of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, seen by the US as a threat to its interests in its own backyard. Correa employs anti-American rhetoric similar to Chavez’s and gave substance to this by closing a US Air Force base in his country in 2009.
Ecuador and the United States have generally poor relations, none of which were improved by WikiLeaks.
Assange says he fears that, if sent to Sweden, he could then be extradited from there to the US, where he could face trial for spying and consequently the death penalty. So when he lost his appeal in the English courts against extradition, Ecuador’s embassy was a logical choice.
Embarrassed by Ecuador’s decision to give Assange diplomatic protection, the British then proceeded to provoke ire across South America by suggesting that authorities might enter the embassy and seize Assange. Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted no threat was made, but the British government did write a letter to Ecuador pointing out a piece of legislation allowing British police to enter a foreign embassy, a law passed after a policewoman was shot and killed from a window at the Libyan Embassy during a 1984 protest. But the law depends on suspicion that a crime has taken place on embassy premises. In Assange’s case, there’s no such allegation.
Ecuador protested, accusing Britain of highhanded, neocolonialist behavior, and got support from most countries in the region. At a meeting in June of the Organization of American States, fellow OAS members expressed solidarity with Quito and the “inviolability of diplomatic missions.” The letter from the British Foreign Office was portrayed as a threat to ignore the Vienna Convention that governs the extraterritoriality of diplomatic missions and as arrogant behavior of a bigger power. That Britain was once an imperial power added to the mix.
Given that one of the foreign policy priorities of the current British Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government is to boost South America trade, observers of foreign affairs were left scratching their heads. The former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, Sir Menzies Campbell, suggested the move was counterproductive, that London was mishandling relations with the region as a whole, and he linked the dispute to Britain’s row with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas as they’re known in Latin America, to which both London and Buenos Aires lay claim.
Embarrassed, the British suggested that authorities might enter Ecuador’s embassy and seize Assange.
In the House of Commons, Campbell asked Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, “Is there not a risk that if we appear to behave in a high-handed fashion these very objectives you refer to (building relationships and trade) will be substantially prejudiced? Not least, of course, our interest in preserving the independence and self-determination of the people of the Falklands.”
Browne insisted that Britain’s relations with Latin America are better than they’ve been for decades. If so, the relations are yielding few diplomatic dividends as Britain touches raw nerves over the legacy of European colonialism and subsequent US dominance of the region.
In the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War of 1982, when Argentina seized the islands by force, but were then ejected by a British counteroffensive, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner launched a diplomatic offensive to increase pressure on Britain to open talks over the islands’ future.
Britain took possession of the Falklands in 1833 and claims they weren’t under anyone’s control at the time. Argentina argues the Malvinas were part of the Spanish empire, which became part of Argentina with independence from Madrid, that the British expelled Argentinian settlers when they occupied the islands. So for Buenos Aires, the dispute goes directly back to early days of independence from colonial rule.
In confronting Argentina and then Ecuador, the British may have misjudged the level of solidarity among South American nations. At the height of the row with Argentina earlier this year, Hague used a visit to Brazil to call on the region’s major powers not to support the call from Buenos Aires to close ports to Falkand Islands’ ships. Brazil’s counterpart, Antonio Patriota, issued a public rebuke in a joint press conference: “Minister Hague knows that Brazil … supports the sovereignty of Argentina over the Malvinas and we support United Nations resolution that calls for discussion about the issue with Argentina.”
In confronting Argentina, then Ecuador, the British
Such diplomacy is a far cry from the days of former British Foreign Secretary George Canning, lauded in South America for swinging Britain behind successful South American independence movements against Spain and Portugal in the early 1800s. Canning’s role is remembered to this day with streets named after him in cities like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.
Canning’s modern-day successors seem to overlook the continuing strength of feeling in South America against interference in what they see as their affairs from so-called gringos, whether they’re from Washington or London.
Although South American nations achieved independence in the early 19th century, the United States quickly laid claim as the dominant power in the region. Under the auspices of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, Washington, with tacit support of British naval power, proclaimed it would prevent any outside power intervening on the American continent. But the US itself did not hesitate to intervene in the region to protect economic interests, sometimes directly, but more often indirectly by supporting elites friendly to Washington.
Indeed, Ecuador was only a few decades ago regarded by many as an archetypal banana republic. Bananas became a major export; the industry was dominated by American-owned multinational corporations like United Fruit. National sensitivity to foreign interference is so pronounced because domination is part of the recent past.
So by entering Ecuador’s embassy, Assange tapped into more than Ecuadorean anger over revelations in secret diplomatic cables. Two centuries of history guaranteed that his hosts would respond unfavorably to any attempt by the British to pressure Quito to hand him back – and the rest of South America would rally in support of Ecuador and, by extension, Assange.