In April of this year, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng fled to the American Embassy in Beijing, touching off a diplomatic firestorm. After almost a month of negotiations between the Chinese and American governments, Chen was granted a visa and allowed to leave China to study in the US—a graceful end to what had become a political quagmire for both countries.
During Chen’s period of refuge at the embassy, the Chinese government remonstrated with the American ambassador, at times harshly criticizing his actions as politically motivated to embarrass China. However, as far as we know, at no time did the Chinese ever threaten to violate international law and the embassy’s sovereignty by forcibly entering to seize Chen. The US is a powerful nation and such a step would have had dangerous repercussions.
Chen never sought asylum in the US; his desire from the beginning was to remain in China as a free human being. If he had been granted asylum, his case would have graduated to a higher diplomatic level. He would have instantly become a protected individual under international law.
Now witness the current firestorm surrounding the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up awaiting the decision of the government of Ecuador to grant him asylum. Instead of respecting the embassy’s sovereignty, the British government has begun a process of bullying, threatening to storm the embassy and take Assange by force. Why would the UK make such bold threats, completely illegal under international law? Why would they risk setting an outrageous precedent that would, in effect, endanger every embassy on the face of the earth, including their own? It’s most likely pressure from the US, the biggest bully on the world block, which has shown in recent years an utter disregard for international law when it comes to achieving its ends.
Let it be understood that Assange has not yet been charged with any crime. He is supposedly being extradited to Sweden to “answer questions” regarding charges of sexual misconduct, and possibly rape. The Ecuadorian ambassador has offered to allow Swedish officials to enter the embassy to question Assange, in the hope of clearing up the charges and thus the whole diplomatic quagmire. Sweden has refused. One suspects they want Assange on their own sovereign soil, again under American pressure, so that they can then allow him to be extradited to the US. Washington wants him to stand trial here under the antiquated and draconian Espionage Act of 1917.
Assange is justified in his fear of extradition to the US, where it is very possible he would be treated harshly and inhumanely (like Pvt. Bradley Manning), or even tortured, and tried before a military tribunal on charges of espionage, perhaps executed. In their decision to grant asylum, the government of Ecuador carefully deliberated and found such threats to be real and Assange’s petition justified.
Ironically, Assange has not committed any act of real espionage, but like many other newspapers worldwide, has simply printed documents provided him. Even the Pentagon admitted the WikiLeak documents, while certainly embarrassing, posed no real threat to American security. Yet, as with its relentless hounding of whistleblowers in this country, a policy that is designed to have a chilling effect on truth-telling here at home, the Obama administration now stretches its long arm to silence truth-telling across the sea. Quite a departure for a former presidential candidate who pledged to make government more open and “transparent.” Well, I guess transparent is the word.
What tragic irony that this country, which has for so long claimed to stand for freedom, justice, and free speech, should be the object of such fear. What have we become? Don’t look now, America. Your mask is slipping–again.