Late Night Live Radio had Thiago de Aragao and Donald Rothwell on the program 26 June 2012 to discuss Julian Assange and his application for political asylum in Ecuador. Full audio is available at the ABC Radio website.
Phillip Adams: We've often talked about special relationships on this program - like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, or our beloved John Howard and George W Bush - but on this occasion it's a special relation between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the President of Ecuador. Because, as I said a little earlier, they've got a lot in common. They belong to the so-called, or they see themselves belonging to the so-called 'club of the persecuted' and they're not huge fans of the United States of America's imperial overreach. Joining me on the blower from São Paulo, Brazil... No, I'm sorry, that's not the case. Joining me on the blower from Paraguay to tell us how journalists in South America are analysing this special relationship is Thiago Aragao. And as well as that, we've got Donald R. Rothwell in our northborn studio. Donald's professor of international law at the A.N.U. Thiago, as a South American journalist who's been following these developments, does Ecuador need Assange?
Thiago de Aragao: Hi. It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with you. Well, of course for Ecuador it's a good deal to have Assange. But for Assange it's way more important. Apart from the UK, the U.S., or Sweden, any place would do for Julian Assange in the current situation he's facing. For Ecuador, it's interesting, because it offers a little gambling power to Ecuador and it puts them back on the map. And with the ability to talk, at least in this particular issue, in a higher voice, in a higher level with certain countries.
Phillip Adams: Ecuador doesn't have a lot of international spotlight shining upon it normally, but it's certainly in the spotlight now. Tell me a bit about Ecuador.
Thiago de Aragao: Well, Ecuador is a very small country in South America. It's between Peru and Colombia with opening to the sea. The main cities, Quito and Guayaquil, are regarded as very modern, very nice cities. Many travelers from South America that go to Quito usually get impressed on how modern the city looks, at least a decent part of the city. And it's a small country with an average educated elite, cultural, economical, and political elite. And I believe that for Assange is a choice that will not be bad. It will be a decent one.
Phillip Adams: I understand the president is the most popular in recent decades in the country.
Thiago de Aragao: No, because he is going on a different direction than Ecuador traditionally went. Ecuador's a low-profile country that's more interested in its domestic affairs and maintaining stability, while the President Rafael Correa, he speaks loudly, he talks in a sense that goes over Ecuador's interest. He wants to participate and be a player in the regional politics. But in fact, he does not have the wit to be.
Phillip Adams: Yeah. Let's cross now to Don. Don, Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian international lawyer, said that from a Latin perspective it's a glorious thing to get Assange. You don't even have to be anti-American to want to do that. Y'know, there's almost a universal hostility towards American foreign policy. Agreed?
Donald Rothwell: Well, certainly we've seen this is an ongoing response to U.S. foreign policy since 9/11 and the Bush era, and even under Obama there are ongoing objections - drone strikes in the last week or so have of course continued to resonate within the international community. So in terms of Ecuador getting Assange, if that is to occur, well then Ecuador can stand up to the United States. But then of course, that is if we buy into the theory that the United States is seeking to eventually extradite Assange for WikiLeaks-related charges.
Phillip Adams: I don't want to go over all that again because we've dealt with it quite extensively in the last week or so, but let's look at other aspects of this which make Assange's needs a bit odd. Of course, he's in this difficult position because of sexual allegations in yet another country. And that is not a normal political asylum situation. So on what grounds could the Ecuadorian Government grant it?
Donald Rothwell: Well it would seem that on the basis of the comments he's made, including to your colleague Fran Kelly late last week, that his claim for asylum is not based on a fear of persecution by Sweden, nor is it based on a fear of persecution from the United Kingdom, which is the country where he's currently located as we know. But rather the United States, and that he would eventually extradition to the United States on WikiLeaks-related charges. He wouldn't be guaranteed a fair trial in the United States; he could possibly face the death penalty.
Phillip Adams: Yeah.
Donald Rothwell: So that's a pretty unique situation. Because when persons do seek asylum it's normally from the persecution of the government of the country in which they are currently located, or their home government. And so we often have athletes who are visiting various countries during Olympics who might seek asylum from their home government as a result of fear of persecution.
Phillip Adams: I've had the advantage of a sneak preview of your op-ed piece in tomorrow's Canberra Times, and you make the point very simply that in assessing Assange's asylum claim, Ecuador is not bound to apply a legal test. They could simply make a choice, a political act, at their own discretion.
Donald Rothwell: Yes, and I think the important distinction here is that Assange is not claiming refugee status under the refugee convention, which would be a claim for what's know as 'territorial asylum', but rather this is a political or diplomatic asylum case, and you're right, this is entirely within the discretion of the Ecuadorian Government as to whether it would grant asylum in this instance.
Phillip Adams: Thiago, let's go back to this fascinating president who makes the point that he lived in the U.S. for four years, got two academic degrees there, quote, "I love and admire the American people a great deal. The last thing I'd be is anti-America, but I'll always call a spade a spade". I'm fascinated, and I hadn't realized this, that he laughs about his decision not to renew the U.S. Southern Command's lease of an air base which ended U.S. occupancy in 2009. So he's quite willing to be provocative.
Thiago de Aragao: Exactly. He's quite willing to be provocative. We've seen a general characteristic of the region today. South America is a region that is farthening itself more and more from the United States and transforming what was once based on political relations now to merely economic relations. And Rafael Correa, he is a internationalized president in a very domestic-looking country. So he faces some contradictions. He began his administration very closely to President Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, but as the years went by he realized he wants to be taken more seriously by the international community than his Venezuelan counterparts. So he, at the same time that he faces the situation that he wants to expropriate the Americans and not renew their concession to have the military base, he has moments of lucid direct relation in terms of commercial aspects. So he, so far it's hard to identify what his next move will be: if it will be a populous decision, or if it will be a pragmatic decision.
Phillip Adams: Well, if he decides not to be welcoming to Assange, it puts Julian in an incredibly difficult position. Does he then shop himself around other Central and South American nations with a chip on the shoulder about the U.S.?
Thiago de Aragao: True, but I believe that Julian he... he gave some thought to the decision and and his choice to go to the Ecuadorian Embassy. He knows that there the treatment will be... it's not a shot in the dark. So he basically knows what to expect. And I believe that immediately the Government of Ecuador will consider the... to receive him in the country. What will happen later is something that we don't know. Because he can be used as a tool for negotiation, or he can be used as a trophy to be kept within the country. So this is something that will develop according to the necessities and the goals of the President of Ecuador.
Phillip Adams: Now, Don, let's go back to the current situation. In entering the Ecuadorian Embassy, he is in breach of his bail conditions, meaning that he's now subject to arrest. The right of asylum of course is recognized in international law. How safe is he in the Ecuadorian Embassy?
Donald Rothwell: I think we have to assume that after nearly a week that he's pretty safe at the moment. There is some evidence of previous countries not respecting these types of asylum claims and effectively barging into the embassy to seek to recapture a fugitive. But the British seem to have responded to this in a fairly civilized way. The Ecuadorian Ambassador met with UK authorities in London on Wednesday of last week, and they seem to be negotiating through the matter at the moment, so I think at the moment we can say he is safe at the embassy.
Phillip Adams: What happens when he walks out the door? Of what is a pretty ordinary building in London... we're not looking at a place with razor wire, y'know, or electric fences. What happens when he climbs into a range rover and heads for Heathrow?
Donald Rothwell: Well, unless some settlement has been reached between Ecuador and the UK on the UK respecting presumably Assange's asylum claim and the fact that Ecuador has granted him asylum, he would clearly be subject to arrest and that's the position that UK authorities have been adopting now for nearly a week.
Phillip Adams: Wow. Thiago, I understand that Ecuador has a preferential trade agreement with the U.S. on some 1,300 goods and that deal is up for renewal. Will the present situation affect such agreements?
Thiago de Aragao: It could affect and at least it will be placed in the negotiation table when the two countries are discussing about it. But, if Assange faces extreme penalties in the U.S., such as the death penalty, I believe that Ecuador will not involve Assange in a negotiation like this. It could affect, there could be retaliation from the United States. But since it's a decision to be made more towards the end of the year, I think the outcome of the next two to three weeks are gonna be critical for us to make a forecast of how this could develop. Rafael Correa could make very strong statements that automatically put Assange outside of any negotiation, or he can maintain silence, and this will be a quiet message to the United States that Assange is on the negotiation table.
Phillip Adams: Thiago, there's been a long history of dissidents of one sort or another, of taking refuge in embassies. Noriega, President of Panama, took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in December in 1989. What happened there?
Thiago de Aragao: Well, the choice there was also made be Noreiga to choose a neutral ground and a place where he believed that certain convictions and certain moral pillars of the embassy he chose would stand in his favour.
Phillip Adams: Don, you write that a careful distinction needs to be made with respect to the consular assistance that Assange has been provided with as an Australian citizen, and the more robust diplomatic protection Australia could provide. Everyone of us is fascinated by this subtle differential; could you expand on it?
Donald Rothwell: Well, every Australian is entitled to consular assistance when they're overseas, and that can extend from replacing a lost passport to dealing with local authorities if criminal charges have been brought. And clearly Assange has been receiving that at the higher level. But y'know, as Senator Carr, the Foreign Minister, has noted last week: Australia doesn't argue the case before a foreign court when an Australian national is caught up in those legal proceedings. Diplomatic protection on the other hand, is more where the country, the state, stands in front of its citizen and seeks to represent its citizen where its citizen's international law rights are being infringed, and this predominately goes to human rights obligations. So, an example of that could have been when in 2005 the Australian citizen Van Nguyen was facing, and ultimately executed, in Singapore, where the Australian Government at one stage under Prime Minister Howard did actively consider representing that individual by way of diplomatic protection, possibly even taking a case to the International Court of Justice over that matter.
Phillip Adams: Thiago, final question to you: how interested is Central and South America in this case?
Thiago de Aragao: Well, relatively interesting. Because Brazil, Argentina, and the main powerhouses of South America are focusing currently on the situation in Paraguay. It brings more direct results to those countries than the case of Julian Assange in Ecuador. And it's more triviality for South Americans to observe what's happening with Julian Assange in Ecuador than anything concrete that would affect relationships between countries. And one point that I would like to make is that even with Rafael Correa offering asylum to Julian Assange, that means that he is temporarily safe. Because with low popularity Rafael Correa could be replaced in the near future by a government that historically has been... by an opposition that historically has been aligned with the U.S. So accepting the political asylum does not mean that he will be safe forever. He will be constantly needing to make a forecast of six to nine months or one year to evaluate if he is really safe or not.
Phillip Adams: Gentlemen, I thank you for your time. Thiago Aragao, editor of Latin American Politics dot com. I'll have posted the link on our website. Thanks, Thiago. And to you, Donald Rothwell, president of international law at the A.N.U.