As expected, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has officially received the full support of the United Nations (U.N.) in his quest to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after living there for almost four years.
Assange entered the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges dating back to 2010. The WikiLeaks man was granted asylum, and he has maintained that the real reason extradition was sought was to make it easier for U.S. authorities to get their hands on him after WikiLeaks published a series of damning revelations from whistleblowers.
Though he entered the embassy of his own free will, Assange filed a complaint with the U.N. in 2014 arguing that he was being “arbitrarily detained.” Now, the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) agrees. It said:
“On 4 December 2015, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted Opinion No. 54/2015, in which it considered that Mr. Julian Assange was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In that opinion, the Working Group recognized that Mr. Assange is entitled to his freedom of movement and to compensation.”
“This changes nothing. We completely reject any claim that Julian Assange is a victim of arbitrary detention. The UK has already made clear to the UN that we will formally contest the working group’s opinion.”
The U.K. government further argues that the U.N. has completely “ignored” the facts of the case, namely, that Assange skipped bail while facing serious criminal charges and has “voluntarily” chosen to remain in “detention.” It continued:
“Julian Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK. The opinion of the UN Working Group ignores the facts and the well-recognised protections of the British legal system. He is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy. An allegation of rape is still outstanding and a European Arrest Warrant in place, so the UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden. As the UK is not a party to the Caracas Convention, we do not recognise ‘diplomatic asylum’.”
The long and short of all this is that Assange may have won a moral victory today, but the U.K. (or Sweden) won’t accept the U.N.’s verdict and let Assange walk away.
There are conflicting reports around whether the U.N.’s decision is in any way legally binding. Christophe Peschoux from the U.N. went on record yesterday to say that whatever decision the panel arrived at would be legally binding.
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) February 4, 2016
The U.N. has again today reiterated that the opinions of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) are legally binding “to the extent that they are based on binding international human rights law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).”
If the U.K. is to ignore the U.N.’s decision, this would also bring into question the need for the U.N. to exist at all. “For the international human rights system to function, states must abide by the rulings,” said Norwegian lawyer Professor Mads Andenas, former chair of the UNWGAD panel, to the Guardian. “There’s no other way to deal with it. If the state is in violation of international law, it’s for the state to find ways to give effect to the [panel’s] decision.”
While it is true that opinions of the WGAD are often considered by key international institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights, there is also the issue of domestic laws at play here. Can the U.N.’s decision simply ignore the fact that Assange is facing serious criminal charges, which he has “voluntarily avoided” for almost four years? And can the U.K. simply ignore the findings of an organization to which it subscribes?
It seems unlikely this saga will end anytime soon.