OPINION: One of Australia’s most famous citizens has a paid a high price for the hypocrisy and arrogance of his fellow citizens. Stuart Rees explains.
The UN panel’s finding that Julian Assange has been arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorian Embassy for almost four years was met with official British arrogance: This won’t change anything. We know best. We always do.
Was British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond born to rule? He immediately declared the UN expert panel ‘flawed in law’ and ‘ridiculous’.
At first sight it appears as though the controversy concerning efforts to keep Assange cooped up in the Ecuadorian Embassy hinges on legal arguments. But behind the arguments about rules of law lies a cultural bedrock of superiority which is part of a centuries old tradition of key elites assuming that no-one should question their views.
They are upholders of order. Their judgements are above others’. Mere mortals should not question them.
Ingredients of a Culture
Arrogance was apparent in the claims of former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that she knew Assange had broken the law, until the AFP found that this was not the case.
Arrogance as part of an aggressive patriotism can be seen in the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office which has laid no charges against Assange, but refuses to interview him in his captivity. The UN panel criticised the lack of diligence by Swedish authorities and the lengthy nature of the investigations.
In what looks like a David vs Goliath contest, small Ecuador has been derided and bullied for agreeing with the UN, and for giving sanctuary to Assange.
Perhaps the most frightening example of this, we know best, we know what to do culture came in the pronouncements of US politicians and media commentators that Julian Assange should be hunted down like Bin Laden, that execution would be too good for him and, even if it might be unlawful, someone should ‘take a gun and shoot the son of a bitch.’ At the time, no Australian politicians from the major parties questioned these comments.
Such a culture affects the practice of law. It affects assumptions about the need for pragmatism in politics. Reflecting on matters of principle has little place in a culture which exists to maintain establishment interests and to make an example of anyone who might persist in challenging them.
For years, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has exposed the evils of unaccountable, inaccessible power, not least the arrogant certainty of the US Pentagon and its war machines. The UK Foreign Minister’s confidence and arrogance is merely the latest example of a long tradition.
A Culture’s Precedents
It’s worth recalling some seeds of that tradition. Former 19th century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston fostered gunboat diplomacy, the use of force to remind possible opponents not to meddle with his policies to protect British interests.
The Palmerston precedents should make us recall the no-expense-spared, 24-hour London police surveillance outside the Ecuadorian Embassy to ensure ‘fugitive’ Assange did not escape. If it was not so serious, you’d think a satirical light opera should be written about the overkill response. Perhaps ‘Cops for Julian’, ‘Bobbies for Ecuador’ or ‘The Siege of Free Speech’?
Let’s return to Lord Palmerston. He and his colleagues had power, could threaten opponents and maintain their swagger on a world stage. In 1850 he dispatched not just one gunboat, but a whole naval squadron to the port of Athens just to protect one British citizen.
A more recent example of the beliefs which are influenced by this culture occurred in 1989. It concerned Lord Denning, one of the most revered and celebrated judges in British history who gave his opinions on the case of the Guildford Four.
In 1974, three young men and one young woman were convicted of bombings in two Guildford pubs which killed five people. They served almost 15 years in prison but in 1989 their convictions were quashed and they were released.
Immediately on his release, one of the Guildford Four, Gerry Conlon said “I’ve been in prison for 15 years, for something I didn’t do. Something I didn’t know nothing about.”
Their conviction and imprisonment has been regarded as one of Britain’s worst miscarriages of justice, but in response to their release, Lord Denning claimed that he knew they were guilty anyway and, if capital punishment had still been available when they were originally convicted, the Guildford Four could have been hanged and the matter closed.
Denning went on to argue, that four lives didn’t matter compared to the reputation of British justice.
A Dose of Hypocrisy
A culture of arrogance includes a certain indifference to, or is it ignorance of, one’s own hypocrisy? Arrogance can’t afford to be hindered by awareness of hypocrisy. The British Government would claim to be an upholder of human rights and an enthusiastic supporter of the United Nations. They would damn other countries who flout international law and UN resolutions, yet when a UN finding goes against their views, they can ignore the UN ‘s recommendations and deride them as ‘ridiculous’.
It’s no consolation to know that other governments, not least Australia’s, are also enthusiastic supporters of the UN when it suits them. It’s as though respect for universal rights escapes notice because the current trend is for governments to curtail civil liberties and at the same time champion them.
At a time of fear fomented by terrorism and by arguments that national security is a priority that can’t be questioned, that culture is likely to continue and even flourish.
Julian Assange is a victim of that culture.
In the interests of free speech and freedom of information, other brave whistleblowers, Daniel Defoe, Tom Paine, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning* and Edward Snowden have also been significant contributors to democracies and to civil societies. They have echoed the thesis of the late Stephane Hessel: to be outraged by injustice is to maintain contact with your humanity. The alternative is indifference.
The liberty of ordinary citizens has only been enhanced when this culture of arrogance and hypocrisy has been exposed and challenged. That challenge has to continue if Julian Assange is to walk free and a semblance of justice retained.
* This article has been corrected – it originally referred to Ms Manning by her previous name. Apologies for the error.