By Hugh Nikolovski, AWPR Intern
The UK court ruling on the 10th of December, that Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States is a stark reminder of the hollowness of both it and Australia’s commitments to human rights and the freedom of the press.
Earlier in January 2021 a UK court ruled that due to Assange’s poor mental health, as a result of him being locked up in one form or another since 2012, he posed a real and oppressive suicide risk if imprisoned in the United States. The overturning of the January ruling was only made possible due to assurances from the US that if extradited Assange would not be placed in solitary confinement and he could possibly serve his sentence in Australia. Assange’s legal team plans to appeal his case further to the UK’s high court, but if extradited he faces up to 175 years in prison.
And what was the crime that warrants such an extreme sentence? The publishing of classified documents, which exposed details of US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the illegal killing of civilians and journalists. These revelations were necessary and in the public interest. What Assange revealed was the ugly truth of how the United States conducts itself on the world stage and for that he must be punished.
The irony of this ruling is that it came just after US President, Joe Biden held a summit for democracy. Not all countries were welcome at this event, only those like Australia which the US has deemed democratic. At the summit President Biden was critical of authoritarian regimes that target journalists and those who defend human rights, seemingly failing to recall Assange’s extradition proceedings or that it was the United States Central Intelligence Agency that planned to kidnap and assassinate Assange in 2017.
This hypocrisy from Biden is further compounded by the fact that pursuing the extradition of Assange was not the policy of his democratic predecessor, but President Trump’s. Biden could thus have distanced himself from this approach but instead he has endorsed it. It remains clear that whatever value the US places on democracy, it does not supersede the importance of which it places on shielding itself from scrutiny.
And then amid all this sits Australia, quietly watching from the sidelines as one of its own citizens is dragged closer to life behind bars. Australia does not have to remain silent on this issue. Scott Morrison could side with Labor Leader Anthony Albanese in calling for Assange to be released, but so far, he has resisted. Barnaby Joyce and Andrew Wilkie are one of the few voices of support. The Australian Government’s refusal to stand up for Assange throughout his ordeal sheds light on its willingness to abandon its democratic values, if it suits the United States.
Unfortunately, this is not surprising. Australia has a long history of deferring its decisions on foreign policy to the US. From recklessly following it into devastating conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East to the recent AUKUS announcement which sacrificed our submarine contract with the French and will expand the US military presence in Australia, Canberra has consistently prioritised the alliance with the United States above other concerns. The Australian Government’s failure to call out the appalling treatment of Assange should be viewed in this context.
Julian Assange represents an enduring symbol of Australia’s dedication to its security alliance with the United States. It is willing to abandon its own citizen and ignore its commitments to human rights merely to please its almighty security guarantor. Assange’s fate is not yet sealed, but this step towards extradition is a dark day for democracy.