Ecuador has just reached the summit among unworthy states. In withdrawing from Julian Assange not only his right to asylum, but also the Ecuadoran citizenship it awarded him (in 2012 and 2017, respectively), it has shamelessly declared before the world that all those with the impertinence to oppose governments that mock the rule of law and human rights are in danger. As if making a sinister response to the International Criminal Tribunal’s signal to murderous rulers that they can no longer act with impunity, Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno is putting a price on the heads of all political whistleblowers.
One of the main obstacles that Captain Alfred Dreyfus encountered in his effort to defend himself was singular: He was said to be singularly disagreeable. He was the kind of guy no one wanted to stick up for, who might even have put off Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the “judge-penitent” hero of Albert Camus’s novel “The Fall,” who was ready to take on all cases. Assange’s detractors use the same arguments as Dreyfus: that he is not nice and did grave damage to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton by revealing embarrassing emails. As if that were not enough, he likewise stands accused of involvement with the extreme right, and is Australian to boot. In its way of making the verification of these rumors more difficult, the extreme right accusation works every time, without needing proof.
Assange has explained matters regarding Clinton. He did not support Donald Trump or obey alleged Russian orders, but he did believe that Clinton represented a major threat to world peace, someone who would have launched devastating military operations.
But what does it matter whether Assange is nice or whether one agrees with his positions? What is in question is freedom of expression and information. For having exposed absolutely enormous government lies, a courageous man has found himself in isolated confinement worse than a prison: no access to open air, health care or exercise, and a window only 10 centimeters [4 inches] wide, plus reduced visitations and no internet for the past few months. Assange has thus whiled away years of detention without having been formally tried.
His mental and physical health have considerably deteriorated. Yet the outside world does not seem to concern itself about him, despite the warnings of support groups. Meeting him has become ever more difficult; since December, I have undertaken trips to the embassy with the help of his lawyers, but in vain.
Why It Is Necessary To Defend Assange
This extradition process has been going on a long time. So why is this happening now? Doubtlessly Brexit influenced it, and one is entitled to be astonished at the simultaneity of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s absurd negotiations and Assange’s arrest. But perhaps it is also tied to the fact that back in February, Ecuador quickly received a loan of 10.2 million euros [approximately $11.5 million] from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Is that the price at which Assange was let go?
He is now threatened with extradition to the U.S. According to some officials, he will incur a minimal penalty, given the context of the WikiLeaks affair and in the wake of Chelsea Manning’s trial for having helped reveal millions of secret documents. The U.N. and many other human rights organizations have attempted to stop Assange’s extradition, but it appears that this will really happen, given that Britain is the loyal vassal to America. Like Ecuador, it is sending an unmistakable and fatal message of opposition to freedom of expression as much as to whistleblowers. What is more, it will ratify American domination, up to and including over areas like free speech and opinion in Europe. In other words, Great Britain and Ecuador are the new faces of shame.
Nothing indicates that Assange will have a right to a fair trial; to the contrary, we can expect inhuman treatment unworthy of a democracy, even the U.S., so much have his activities destabilized the institutions and some of their hypocritical and dishonest workings. The U.N. has acknowledged that Manning was subjected to degrading treatment and torture; there can be no doubt that Assange is in for the same.
In his book “The Art of Revolt: Snowden, Assange, Manning,” the French sociologist and philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie rightly points to the extremes of force employed by democratic states to silence whistleblowers. He writes, “The repression is not severe because the ‘crimes’ are serious, but because those called ‘whistleblowers’ deeply destabilize the legal and political order, officialdom.”* It is because we have always been told that states have a right to secrecy that we accept far too easily such murky zones of non-legality. Here Lagasnerie underscores another reason for governments’ hysteria over WikiLeaks: “the narcissistic wound that this organization inflicts on the men and women of the state. It is probably impossible to determine just how much they derive satisfaction from their access to information denied to the public, thus making it an ignorant mass. It is all about having a self-image as privileged and perceptive, having access to something rare which ordinary citizens do not, which for them constitutes their feeling of being part of the state apparatus. This is one of the greatest symbolic rewards that the state offers its servants. Now WikiLeaks is ruining the privilege of this class.”* And if WikiLeaks is principally concerned with the U.S., Europe is left unharmed, as the SwissLeaks and LuxLeaks enquiries showed.
It is basically these hidden sides of power that the “anonymous” activists like Assange, Snowden and Manning attack. They bring to light a serious weakness in our democracy: If the law has the power to suspend the law, then this power stops being a guarantee against arbitrary power.
We often read that Assange and the other whistleblowers are engaging in civil disobedience, but Lagasnerie disputes this interpretation: “Civil disobedience is the form of revolt that goes as far as possible in what is permitted, in what authorizes liberal democratic space as we know it. … [I]t represents the strongest gesture, and is often used as the last resort. One could even say that in a sense it is the most radically democratic act, constituting the most seditious and contrarian practice possible in the areas of law, citizenship, constitutionality, etc.” Those who do it know that it puts them outside the law and invites punishment, which is a recognition of its value. As such, civil disobedience does not challenge “the legal order, but rather works as a reminder of it.” However, Snowden, Assange and Manning, and even more, activists like Anonymous, are doing something else: They refuse “to assume responsibility for their actions, to ask for and accept punishment,” and they flee the repression they provoke. Although these three whistleblowers are publicly known, WikiLeaks nonetheless allows a sort of anonymous activity that Lagasnerie celebrates: while the public generally perceives this anonymity as cowardly besides upsetting the necessity of associating politics and publicity, “It permits individuals who belong to institutions, who are members of it, to take political action against their institutions. Anonymity gives insiders the means to convey their institutions’ information to the public.” If someone notes a grave dysfunction in the institution or enterprise where they work, why should they take responsibility for denouncing it? According to this logic, anonymity is a protection of democracy. As Lagasnerie asserts, “The state of anonymity reveals how the idea of democracy as we know it and work in it results in the censorship and scarcity of speaking subjects, and hinders the ability of some for political action. By connecting politics with publicity, by making the political scene like a drama of appearances, confrontations, and mass mobilization, we create an order which limits a range of individuals from speaking out, expression and action. These acts become too risky, too costly. On the other hand, the measure of anonymity is supposed to allow the redistribution of rights and free speech in reducing the cost of politics − best of all, it undoes the idea that there has to be a political cost for those who take action.”*
Assange is not anonymous, even if WikiLeaks guarantees the anonymity of sources. But it also calls into question the principle of belonging. We do not choose the country in which we are born, and our nationality obliges us to accept its laws and institutions. By fleeing, Assange and Snowden throw doubt on this convention; they refuse to submit to the laws of a country that allowed the dysfunctions that they denounce. As Lagasnerie writes, “To flee is to challenge one’s inscription in the legal system, to bring into existence a kind of subject who gives themselves the right to no longer recognize the law as being theirs and owing it obedience.”* Thus, our birth is an arbitrary event which we also have the right to free ourselves from.
Why Assange Must Die, Not Just Symbolically
Such a stance is intolerable for the state, even if it calls itself democratic. It calls into question the principle of loyalty and submission of citizens to their states, of employees to their bosses. Therefore, the need to make oneself public if one denounces something reduces the risk of such denunciations, and allows a large area of impunity for outrageous acts by governments. This can be seen every day.
So, yes, maybe Assange is unpleasant − but failing to support him now amounts to complicity with those who, under the pretense of democracy and rule of law, are trying to restrict our freedom and undermine democracy.
What Must Be Done?
In the coming days, we can hope that around the world a number of petitions and appeals in Assange’s support will appear. We must sign them and participate in them. We must put pressure on our government to intervene and stop the U.K. from extraditing Assange to America. And there is no reason not to send a request to our leaders to grant Assange Belgian nationality and right of asylum. Yes, it runs the risk of arousing the anger of Trump and his administration. But now more than ever the survival of democracy requires courage.
*Editor’s note: The quotations from Geoffroy de Lagasnerie’s book, accurately translated, could not be verified.