Julian Assange is not the first victim of imperial lawlessness, with its ruthless disregard for legal and moral principles, and he will definitely not be the last.Reacting to the arrest and detention in British custody of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that the arrest confirms “that no one is above the law.” This was a phrase repeated multiple times by members of her government.
It is, or ought to be, a fundamental principle of a society based upon the rule of law, that this is indeed the case. If an individual, or group of individuals, transgress upon the law then they ought to be held accountable. That ought to apply regardless of that person’s status. We know of course that this is an ideal not always applied. There is ample sociological evidence to that effect.
A related principle is that a person is presumed innocent until they either plead guilty or are found guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction applying the law to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
Whether or not Mr Assange will ever receive a fair trial is a moot point. There has been a veritable torrent of prejudicial pre-trial publicity. Even the Judge who dealt with Mr Assange’s charge of breaching his bail conditions (in respect of non-existent Swedish charges of alleged sexual assault) felt the need to describe Mr Assange as a “narcissist,” the relevance of which to a charge of breaching bail escapes me.
The judge then declined sentencing jurisdiction and transferred Mr Assange to a higher court, which had the capacity to impose a 12-month sentence instead of the six months available to a lowly magistrate. Mr Assange had spent six and a half years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, a detention that a United Nations panel found to be arbitrary and contrary to his human rights. Again, the legal justification for transferring Mr Assange to a higher court for admittedly breaching his bail on non-existent charges escapes me.
Returning to Mrs May’s triumphalist claim that no-one is above the law, her rhetoric immediately raises the question: if that is indeed true why is she and members of the government and those of governments before her not standing trial for the many and egregious breaches of international law perpetrated by successive British governments?
Let us look briefly that just four examples from recent history where, if indeed the standard of “no one is above the law” truly applied, it would rapidly deplete the ranks of United Kingdom politicians, past and present.
Afghanistan. In December 2001 the United States and its allies, including the United Kingdom, invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly because the Taliban Government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington DC. The Taliban Government, far from refusing the United States request, asked for evidence of bin Laden’s alleged involvement in the attacks. That is after all, the basic requirement of the “rules based legal order”. That evidence was never provided.
We now know that the decision to invade Afghanistan was made in July 2001, two months before the 9/11 attacks. The real reasons for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan had more to do with the refusal of the Afghan government to give the contract for a gas pipeline from the Caspian basin to an American company, and instead of giving the contract to the Argentinian Bridas Corporation.
17 ½ years later the United States and the United Kingdom are you still there. Millions of Afghans were forced into seeking refuge across the border, principally into Iran and Pakistan. The heroin trade, much reduced under the Taliban, now flourishes under US protection. Military bases are used as black sites for torture as well is providing springboards for hybrid warfare against the former Soviet republics on Afghanistan’s border and in China’s Xinjiang province. The latter is a key element in China’s BRI that the United States is determined to oppose and undermine at every opportunity.
In 2017 when an International Criminal Court prosecutor announced an intention to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by United States and Allied forces in Afghanistan, the United States reaction was to issue threats and a refusal to grant visas to ICC investigators. The May government was completely silent about this blatant attempt to obstruct justice, in itself a serious criminal offence.
Iraq. In 2003 the United Kingdom was a strong supporter of the Bush regime plan to invade Iraq, which just happened to be a major oil producer. There was the usual flimflam about Iraq’s alleged violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions dating back to the 1990 Gulf war. That had as much credence as the tales of Iraq’s fabled weapons of mass destruction.
Any doubt that this was anything other then a blatant regime change operation, with other goals including destroying one of Israel’s designated enemies; getting the United States a stronger foothold in the middle east; and turning over Iraq’s oil production to the major US and other western corporations; was demolished by, inter alia, Britain’s own Chilcott report.
And the number of prosecutions for this illegal war of aggression that devastated a society, gave birth to the ISIS plague, killed more than 1 million civilians and made millions more refugees? Absolutely zero.
Libya. After a massive propaganda campaign, nearly all of it entirely false, against Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1973. This resolution authorised the imposition of a no fly zone over Libyan territory and the right to use “all necessary measures” to prevent attacks on civilians. It did not authorise what NATO allies the United Kingdom and France did next, which was to apply massive military force to Libya.
This resulted in the destruction of a country, which up until that point had enjoyed Africa’s highest living standard; the brutal murder of its leader without even the pretence of minimum legal standards; a massive exodus of refugees; and an ongoing Civil War in which the United Kingdom is backing longtime CIA asset General Haftar.
How many United Kingdom politicians have been held accountable for these multiple breaches of international law? Again, absolutely zero.
Chagos Islands. This was a uniquely British piece of international banditry, albeit on behalf of the United States who wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean. The Labour government of Harold Wilson was only too happy to oblige. The short version of the chronicle of sustained and systematic abuse of the Chagos Islanders is that Mauritius was forced to agree to the Chagos Islanders being severed from their control. The Islanders were in turn forcibly evicted from their homes under appalling circumstances. The island was then handed over to the Americans for military purposes. There is strong evidence that the island of Diego Garcia, the principal island in the Chagos Group, is also used as a ‘black site’ for illegal renditions and torture.
The entire horror story is documented in the opinion of the International Court of Justice (www.icj-cij.org 25 February 2019) and an excellent summary by Craig Murray on his website (www.craigmurray.org.uk 26 March 2019). The majority opinion of the court (13:1) was that the United Kingdom was in breach of multiple legal obligations. The court rejected all of the arguments put forward by the United Kingdom to justify what it had done. The reaction of the UK government to the decision was to announce that it was going to ignore it.
The reaction to the ICJ decision provides the clearest possible illustration of the gap between the rhetoric of May about no-one being above the law, and the reality daily confronted by the victims of great power machinations.
Although it is probably of little comfort to Mr Assange, his experiences have helped to shed light on the brutality and ruthless disregard for the legal and moral principles reportedly held by those espousing sanctimonious claptrap in the House of Commons and elsewhere.
Mr Assange is not the first victim of imperial lawlessness. He will definitely not be the last.
James O’Neill is a barrister at law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.