The Assange debate leads down a blind alley
August 23, 2012
I’ve spent a fair bit of the last few days following the debate surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Over that time I have become increasingly dismayed at the way this has proceeded, and in particular how the British left has been split down the middle over the issue. I have been angry too at how the level of debate has sunk so low. I find it hard to remember an issue that has proved so divisive, and that has driven journalists and writers whose work I otherwise respect to contribute such poor analysis and resort so easily to name-calling—and I’ve been around a bit.
When talking of Assange supporters or critics we clearly need to be aware that each of these broad categories covers a wide range of opinion. Nonetheless his supporters generally have in common the claim that he would be in grave danger if he were to be extradited to the USA on charges relating to WikiLeaks’ activities, and that such an extradition would be the likely outcome of his being returned first to Sweden to face allegations of rape so this must be avoided at all costs. His critics meanwhile have grasped the tendency of some of their opponents to downplay the rape accusations in one way or another and to appeal to the existing laws of Sweden and the UK to prove that he must return to Sweden. This they do with a mixture of complacency and lack of interest in the possibility that the USA may also become involved. Sadly it doesn’t rise much above that.
What has probably angered me most in the debate has been the way two principles have been counter-posed: as if we are being forced by this issue to choose which trumps which—women’s rights or freedom of speech. From where I am though it seems pretty clear. Assange should be protected from the probable attempts by the USA to extradite him. For me there is no doubt that they would like to use him through something akin to a show-trial to demonstrate what happens to those who reveal the truth about their actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. If this were to be allowed to happen it would be a massive blow against the principle of free speech and it must be resisted. Does that mean we should be happy to see him escape the allegations in Sweden? Definitely not. They are very serious and he must be made to answer them, whether that happens by Sweden undertaking to resist US extradition requests or the legal process happening, partially at least, in a third country. Anyone who supports the principles of free speech and women’s rights should unite to ensure that both of these come to pass.
So just why are so many convinced that they are being forced into making this choice? It seems to be the result of three combined factors which together create a poisonous climate in which a proper debate cannot take place.
The first of these is the specific allegations made in Sweden. The sexual nature of these is guaranteed to drive a wedge between campaigners. It has also allowed a climate of misogyny to enter the debate as many of Assange’s defenders try to minimise the seriousness of these and has led in turn to the accusation from many of his critics that pretty much everyone who defends him from possible US intervention, irrespective of the merit of their arguments, is a rape apologist.
The second factor is the personalisation of the issue around Assange himself. The sneering at the balcony appearance and other various judgements on his character have no place in this debate. They are irrelevant. This isn’t centrally about Julian Assange. This is about two central principles. If we get it right in this case the fight for both of those principles could be massively strengthened. Get it wrong—and that’s where we are heading right now—and one, or more likely both, will be weakened.
Finally I have been angered by the way that so much of the so-called debate has been conducted on the basis of existing law. Liberal lawyer David Allen Green has become the spokesperson for this tendency through his recent New Statesman article and this has been dutifully quoted from numerous times to conclude that the existing law can be the only arbiter of what happens. But this misses the crucial point that the law remains in the last resort not a neutral force, standing above politics, but a tool for the maintenance of existing power structures. No-one who has been involved in an industrial dispute can deny this. But this week I have been witnessed otherwise respectable figures on the left stagger up to the insurmountable barrier of the law over whether Swedish police could come to the UK to interview Assange. Or whether Sweden would extradite him anyway. The otherwise brilliant journalist Owen Jones in his article in The Independent, while correctly demanding that Assange stands trial is particularly complacent on these points.
The combination of these three factors has led the British left down a total blind alley, where spiteful name-calling has replaced genuine debate. My plea now is for all who want to see justice served wise up and help see this through to a progressive end. This impasse could be solved if the political will was there and people who want to see justice served for Assange’s alleged victims whilst maintaining the right of freedom of speech stood up together and demanded it.