The United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) today released an opinion that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange “was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom” and is therefore”entitled to his freedom of movement and to compensation.” Assange, who aided NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in finding asylum, told reporters by video link,”We have today a really significant victory that has brought a smile to my face.”
In mid-2010, a Swedish Prosecutor commenced an investigation against Mr. Assange based on allegations of sexual misconduct. On 7 December 2010, pursuant to an international arrest warrant issued at the request of the Swedish Prosecutor, Mr. Assange was detained in Wandsworth Prison for 10 days in isolation. Thereafter, he was subjected to house arrest for 550 days. While under house arrest in the United Kingdom, Mr. Assange requested the Republic of Ecuador to grant him refugee status at its Embassy in London. The Republic of Ecuador granted asylum because of Mr. Assange’s fear that if he was extradited to Sweden, he would be further extradited to the United States where he would face serious criminal charges for the peaceful exercise of his freedoms. Since August 2012, Mr. Assange has not been able to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy and is subject to extensive surveillance by the British police.
In that history of detention, the WGAD found violations of “Articles 9 and 10 of the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and Articles 7, 9(1), 9(3), 9(4), 10 and 14 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], and falls within category III as defined in its Methods of Work.”
Unfortunately, mainstream news publications in the US and United Kingdom have given “short shrift” to the working group and its ruling. There is no shortage of media attention, however, to the
tantrums reactions of US and UK government officials who reject the Working Group’s members and findings. (For an eye-opener, compare an ITV article describing the WGAD’s qualifications with the Guardian’s video of British foreign secretary Philip Hammond dismissing WGAD members as “lay people.”) Coverage of this story is a reminder to readers that they should not rely on middlemen for the truth but should consult original sources as much as possible.
In the WGAD’s announcement of the opinion, it provided important background information, including this description of its members.
The UN Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
The WGAD also provides this explanation of the weight of its opinions.
The Opinions of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention 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). The WGAD has a mandate to investigate allegations of individuals being deprived of their liberty in an arbitrary way or inconsistently with international human rights standards, and to recommend remedies such as release from detention and compensation, when appropriate.
The binding nature of its opinions derives from the collaboration by States in the procedure, the adversarial nature of is findings and also by the authority given to the WGAD by the UN Human Rights Council. The Opinions of the WGAD are also considered as authoritative by prominent international and regional judicial institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights.
Social media have rebuked the UK and Swedish governments for refusing to endorse the Working Group’s recommendations. On Twitter, Edward Snowden commented, “This writes a pass for every dictatorship to reject UN rulings. Dangerous precedent for UK/Sweden to set.”
Photo attribution: By Cancillería del Ecuador [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons