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Assange Asylum Raises South America’s Ire

WikiLeaks founder, in Ecuador Embassy, stirs rancor about South America’s past domination

By Alistair Burnett Created: October 21, 2012 Last Updated: October 23, 2012
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People shout slogans during a demonstration supporting the asylum request to Ecuador by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in front of the British Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, on Aug. 26, 2012. (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/GettyImages)

People shout slogans during a demonstration supporting the asylum request to Ecuador by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in front of the British Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, on Aug. 26, 2012. (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/GettyImages)

An Australian in Britain accused of sexual offenses 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 (5,592.34 miles) away in South America. Global interconnectedness could not get more convoluted, but a look back at history helps situate the incongruity in context.

In confronting Argentina, then Ecuador, the British may have misjudged solidarity among South American nations.

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.

Ecuador’s Ire

In April 2011, Quito expelled U.S. 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 United States responded in kind by expelling Ecuador Ambassador Luis Gallegos. Correa, never well disposed to Washington, resents what he suspects is a long history of U.S. 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 United States 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 U.S. Air Force base in his country in 2009.

Assange says he fears that, if sent to Sweden, he could then be extradited from there to the United States, 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.

Highhanded Britain

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.

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 highhanded 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.”





   

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