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Assange: Saint or sinner?

Currently a Research Associate at the INSYTE Group, Dr. Roslyn Fuller has previously lectured at Trinity College and the National University of Ireland. She tweets at @roslynfuller

Published time: August 26, 2014 14:19
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.(AFP Photo / John Stillwell)

That is, after all, how the debate on the Australian transparency activist and founder of WikiLeaks has been framed for several years now.

This debate was rehashed yet again when Assange held a press conference at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London last week to announce the possibility that he would soon leave the diplomatic premises.

This article is a particularly obvious example of the saint or sinner paradigm, but it is everywhere and not just in relation to Assange. It seems to be a central tenet of modern media that whenever anyone does something newsworthy, as Assange certainly has, that we should not simply find out about them, but ultimately categorize them as “good” or “bad” in their entirety.

When I am asked if I view Assange (or Snowden or Manning) as heroes, I tend to answer “Yes,” so as to avoid the danger of being seriously misquoted. But the truth is I do not much like the word “hero.”

It is just like “reach out” or “manage someone out” or even “I’ll source that.” You mean, you’ll find it? Source is a noun not a verb! And we had a perfectly serviceable way of conveying this thought before you transformed it into one! (Conversely, I don’t mind “frenemy” – we all know what a frenemy is and this term truly filled a gap in the word market. My compliments.)

In antiquity, the idea of a hero was very different. Then a hero was often someone who particularly courageous or at least interesting to be around, but not necessarily morally upstanding or even likeable. Hercules and Achilles, for examples, were heroes, purely on the strength of their enviable ability to waste all before them. Ditto saints. St Peter even managed to land the gig of founding the Catholic Church despite denying Jesus and St Augustine jilted the mother of his son in order to marry someone richer. These early heroes and saints were followed on by a medieval tradition of fairy tales that would better be described as magic realism today.

Two of the most famous professors of my alma mater the University of Goettingen are the Brothers Grimm who journeyed around Germany collecting fairy tales from oral recollection. Flipping through their collection is not particularly inspiring. In the typical Grimm tale a series of events, some of them magical or at least weird, occurs – and then they end. The Grimms’ contributors had apparently never heard of a cohesive story arc or a satisfying entertainment experience. Even Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish fairy tale author whom the Brothers Grimm allegedly considered a soft touch, wrote romantic tales along the lines of: there was a little mermaid who fell in love with a prince; she struck a bargain with a witch to be made human, but every step she took hurt as much as walking on the point of a sword; things failed to work out with the prince and she turned into sea foam. The End. Have a nice day.

Police officers stand outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.(AFP Photo / Carl Court)

The moral if any seemed to be: Life’s hard, get a helmet. Or maybe: stay away from princes – they are not all they are cracked up to be.

And that brings us back to Assange.

At the moment, Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden on allegations of sexual misconduct, at least one of which is rather serious. The current prosecutor had made clear that this round of questioning is merely a formality under Swedish law and that barring anything surprising coming out, she intends to charge him as soon as she can tick this box. Assange, however, suspects that if he returns to Sweden, he might be extradited to the US to face charges in connection with the Chelsea Manning leaks. Due to the many bilateral extradition treaties between the US and other nations, there would not be much appreciable difference in difficulty in having someone extradited from either of these two countries, so it seems that Assange was worried not so much about an extradition from Sweden (in particular in relation to his WikiLeaks activity, he could use the political offense exception) as a snatch-and-grab operation that doesn’t bother with paperwork.

It would not after all be the first time something like that happened. Slobodan Milosevic, for example, was taken to the ICTY in the Hague after the US threatened to cut off IMF and World Bank lending to what was left of Yugoslavia, despite the fact that the hasty “extradition” contravened the Yugoslav Constitution. And if that weren’t enough to make one wonder what happens when someone gets really determined to get their hands on you, consider the web of rendition flights that have operated with impunity throughout Europe for years. As the saying goes, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” and one tends to take a dimmer view when you are the object the possession of which is disputed. Once you are taken, it is too late to do anything about it. It is possibly the kind of thing that would be easier to get away with in Sweden than in the UK.

And thus Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. There is nothing odd about Ecuador granting Assange asylum. The amount of statements that have been made by American politicians suggesting that Assange is a “high-tech terrorist” (as US Vice-President Joe Biden did) or that he be assassinated certainly go above and beyond the kind of personal threat to their wellbeing that most asylum-seekers are ever able to prove. It is not Ecuador’s objective to protect Assange from questioning or even eventual trial over the allegations in Sweden. They simply demand assurances that he will not be turned over to a country where he faces a real risk of political persecution (the US). Sweden, of course, is unable to give this assurance, because of its pre-existing extradition treaty with the US. If Sweden were to exclude the possibility of extradition, they would risk injuring the rights of the US.

So Assange remains in the Ecuadoran embassy. It is not possible for Britain to get him out, because the inviolability of embassy premises is one of the strongest anchors of international law, subject to a reciprocity of such enormous ramifications that it is almost never broken. Ecuador, on the other hand, cannot pack off Assange back to Ecuador, because although Latin American countries recognize a right to grant “diplomatic asylum” which permits this, Western countries do not. So the British have no way to get Assange out and the Ecuadorians have no way to get him to Ecuador. It could, of course, be resolved through the International Court of Justice (the last case on this point happened about 60 years ago), but neither party has yet made a serious move to take it there.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (R) listens as Ecuador's Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino (2nd R) speaks, during a news conference at the Ecuadorian embassy in central London August 18, 2014.(Reuters / John Stillwell)

To some, Assange’s residency in Ecuador’s embassy is an example of martyrdom, a direct revenge for his work at WikiLeaks. To others, it is an act of cowardice, as they feel that Assange should face the Swedish allegations or even make a martyr of himself in the US.

Either way, however, we are choosing to imbue someone with qualities that owe more to a mythological narrative than real life; the Disney version of the fairy tale, as it were, not the Brothers Grimm one.

In real life, politics and public affairs are not about heroes and villains, they are about interests and principles. The rise of celebrity idolization (and its flipside vilification) seems to me to indicate that people are asking themselves: can I trust this person, this person who I only see on TV and read about in newspapers? Here is the answer: no, you can’t. And you shouldn’t. Because you are an adult and adults don’t need cute fairy tales. This is not about a person, this is about an issue and where you stand on that issue.

Personally, I think Assange is a guy who had a good idea that he carried out and that he is a person who is currently in the center of a legal impasse that may never fully be sorted out. It would not be more legal for Ecuador to grant him asylum if he were a more saintly person or less legal for Swedish prosecutors to pursue him if he were more willing to be a martyr. WikiLeaks’ work does not become more or less right or relevant based on how godly its workers are in all aspects of their lives. Just because someone does something good does not mean you are obligated to accept everything they do as good and just because they do something bad doesn’t mean that everything they do is bad. Life is not a fairy tale and therefore there is absolutely no need for Assange to be Prince Charming.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.