Assange standoff shows delicate balance between secrecy and disclosure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 2:26am


The US once sheltered a Catholic cardinal in its Budapest embassy for 15 years after granting him asylum from Hungary's then-communist rulers. So there is irony to be found in the decision by Ecuador, which is aligned with Venezuela and Cuba against the US, to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who remains holed up in its London embassy. American officials and politicians would dearly like to get their hands on Assange to face serious charges arising from WikiLeaks' disclosure of thousands of classified documents.

Assange has become a cause célèbre for the powers-that-be and libertarians alike, after turning himself in to answer a Swedish arrest warrant over possible sex crimes. He lost a court battle to avoid extradition before fleeing to the embassy. His supporters say he remains prepared to fight the allegations, but fears he would not be safe from the Americans. Ecuador granted asylum to save Assange from a "political" trial and a possible long jail sentence after Britain and Sweden refused to undertake that he would not be further extradited to the US.

The question is how long he and his hosts can sit it out while Britain continues to refuse safe passage to Ecuador because it is bound to enforce a European arrest warrant. The White House has claimed that the WikiLeaks disclosures put at risk US diplomats, spies and people who seek US help in promoting democracy. Assange of course would debate that, since he believes governments should have no secrets and that more transparency "creates a better society for all people". But Obama seems unlikely to heed his call this week to end the "witch hunt". That said, citizens do have the right to information about domestic and foreign policies, and governments have a legitimate case for keeping some things secret. They should weigh the need for secrecy carefully.

The British government has rightly withdrawn a threat to revoke the status of Ecuador's embassy so that it could arrest Assange. It almost certainly avoided a legal challenge. Diplomatic missions are inviolate under international law. Defying it would have invited retaliation on top of the damage to Britain's image in South America from being seen to put pressure on Ecuador. This stand-off can now be resolved only by negotiation. Governments have learned a hard lesson about security in the digital age. Hopefully they have also learned that obsessive secrecy and lack of transparency can be used to cloak human-rights abuses disclosed by WikiLeaks.