On August 19, news networks all over the world showed Julian Assange step on to a small balcony of the apartment occupied by the Embassy of Ecuador in London to thank hundreds of his supporters gathered below, along with dozens of British policemen, for helping him stay a free man and urge the US government to call off its ‘witch-hunt’.
Assange had already become a hero to millions who had read the contents of over 250,000 documents, including classified cables to and from numerous US embassies, which his organization systematically handed over to media agencies and individuals around the world, when a British court decreed in May 2012 he should be extradited to Sweden on charges of sexual assault. The fear was he may be extradited from Sweden eventually to the United States, to face even more serious charges, with a US court examining his links with Bradley Manning, the US soldier jailed in the US for having downloaded the files from US government archives.
On June 19, the 41-year-old Australian, who had interviewed Ecuador´s President Rafael Correa earlier, walked into the Embassy of the Republic of Ecuador in London and claimed asylum. The British Foreign Office went ballistic over this manoeuvre, and on August 15 sent an aide memoire to the Ecuadorean Embassy claiming “… there are legal grounds in the United Kingdom – the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987 – that would allow us to take steps to arrest Mr. Assange on the Embassy’s current premises”, and reserving the right to withdraw the diplomatic status of the Embassy if it “ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post.” President Correa and his Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, stood their ground and, reportedly after consultations and a legal examination, granted Assange´s request for asylum on August 16. Renowned Spanish jurist Baltazar Garzon, who is defending Assange, said the charges against him were ‘arbitrary and baseless’.
On August 17, the Permanent Council of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), convened by Ecuador, voted to convene a Meeting of Consultation of Foreign Ministers to debate the issue, with 23 in favour to three (US, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago) against and five small Central American States abstaining. On August 19, an emergency meeting of foreign ministers of the 12-nation South American bloc UNASUR in Guayaquil, Ecuador, strongly condemned the threat of force by the British government, called for respect for international law and a mutually acceptable solution. A day earlier, the nine-nation left-wing ALBA grouping, to which Ecuador belongs, issued an even stronger statement in support of Ecuador. The Britsh government climbed down, saying it did not intend to storm the embassy but only to ensure its legal obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden.
On August 24, the OAS ministerial meeting resolved “to reject any attempt that might put at risk the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions, to reiterate the obligation of all states not to invoke provisions of their domestic law…to express its solidarity and support for the Government of the Republic of Ecuador”. Twelve Latin American foreign ministers intervened in the debate. This diplomatic victory still leaves open the eventual denouement – Assange can be arrested if he leaves the diplomatic premises.
Of the quarter million documents leaked by ‘Cablegate’, over 30,000 are understood to have come to or from US missions in Latin America, of which 900 were classified secret and 10,000 confidential, exposing a host of US activities that resulted in considerable embarrassment for the State Department and the recall of two of its ambassadors – from Mexico and Ecuador! The revelations stirred debates that had repercussions all over the region, with analysts claiming they could be the tip of an iceberg, since the State Department is not the agency involved in dirty tricks. In fact some cables showed responsible reporting on the part of US officials.
An interesting feature of the Assange-Ecuador episode is the degree of cohesion and political unity it revealed within the region. Though reports of the OAS debates indicate reluctance on the part of some important Latin American states to escalate tensions, it is clear the US and Britain had to back down. In the words of the foreign minister of Peru, the countries of the region “have reaffirmed our commitment to international law, our ability to express support for a country when threatened and our capacity for dialogue”.
India has traditionally stayed aloof from issues that concern the region, though it has conveyed support for Cuba against the US blockade, and supports Latin American positions on several issues in multilateral forums. The importance for India of l’Affaire Assange, which is still to unravel, is the cogency, alacrity and unity displayed by Latin American and Caribbean leaders in mobilising support behind Ecuador.
India has made common cause on multilateral issues such as the environment, trade, real transfer of resources and global financial management with the 33 nation-states of this region, among them several active and important players in the UN and other multilateral forums. The recent visit of the Troika of the newly-formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to India, its first foreign partner, brought into sharp relief the importance of joining hands to identify common causes and consult each other on issues of importance.
India should use this opportunity to convince that region’s leaders of its willingness to be a reliable partner and in turn benefit from the support of most, if not all, of the 33-member bloc that has shown favourable political inclination towards it.
(03.09.2012 – Deepak Bhojwani is a former Indian ambassador to Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba and has served in Brazil as consul general. He can be contacted at email@example.com)