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Assange saga exposes UN ignorance and ABC’s naive absurdity


Maybe Philip Ruddock, Australia’s new special envoy for human rights and a man with fine credentials on that front, can knock some good sense into debates about human rights. Take James Glenday’s Saturday morning report on ABC radio’s AM program. He said Julian Assange and his supporters had “undoubtedly had a moral victory”. Undoubtedly? Moral? Victory? On which planet?

Last week, a UN working group released its opinion that Assange’s decision to hide in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since August 2012 is “arbitrary detention”. Only the ABC could fall lock, stock and barrel for this latest chapter in the Delusions of Julian Assange.

Even before Glenday’s tosh, the ABC featured echo-chamber double acts instead of serious interviews. On Friday night’s 7.30 program, Matt Wordsworth resembled a promoter, not a journalist, when interviewing Assange’s lawyer. Not a single hardball question, just a free run for the lawyer to further Assange’s campaign. On Sydney’s 702 radio station, Wendy Harmer gave Geoffrey Robertson, another Assange lawyer, open slather to opine that Assange was pale and “we worry about him. He needs a good dose of Australian sunshine.” Harmer didn’t point out Assange was free to seek some sun at any time by walking out the door of the embassy. Only Emma Alberici came close to asking serious questions about the Assange saga on ABC TV’s Lateline.

Independent journalism demands a commitment to intellectual curiosity: gathering facts and asking searching questions rather than activism and campaigning. To be sure, that requires taking on extra work and taking off the political blinkers. But isn’t that what we expect from a $1 billion taxpayer-funded media organisation? It’s our Australian Broadcasting Corporation, remember, not the Assange Bloviators Collective.

Outside the ABC bunkers, the opinion of the UN Human Rights Council’s working group has been treated as a joke. Even Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, which together with The New York Times published the WikiLeaks material, described the findings as “simply wrong”. Assange sought and received refuge at the Ecuadorean embassy to avoid confronting allegations of sexual offences under Swedish laws. And remember why Assange flew off to Sweden? He said he rather liked their more generous whistleblower laws. Alas, he didn’t much like their rape laws. Not even the world’s biggest narcissist can pick and choose which laws apply to him. And his conspiratorial claims of being whisked away by evil Americans are equally preposterous. The US didn’t move against Assange during his Swedish sojourn, nor when he flew that coop to Britain. If the US does seek to extradite Assange, then laws, not the well-greased Assange propaganda machine, will determine his guilt or innocence.

As is his right, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks has sought legal recourse from every level of the British court system, seeking to invalidate a European arrest warrant. Even with his gaggle of expensive and grandstanding lawyers, Assange has failed to make his case. Oh, and on February 24, 2011, the chief magistrate of England and Wales accused Assange’s Swedish lawyer of “a deliberate attempt to mislead the courts”. Alas, as David Allen Green wrote in The New Statesman, the “zombie facts” spread by Assange, his lawyers and supporters “carry on regardless even when shot down”.

Having failed to get their way under the sovereign laws of Britain and Sweden, Assange and his lawyers hightailed it to the UN armed with their “zombie facts”. As The Guardian editorialised: “WikiLeaks was founded on exposing those who ignored the rule of law. Surely its editor-in-chief should recognise his duty to see it upheld.”

This saga is not just about the world’s biggest narcissist who has become the world’s biggest nuisance. It’s not just about a sanctimonious bloke who doesn’t live by the same standards he preaches. This is about the UN, its premier human rights body and the busybody “experts” whose understanding of arbitrary detention is laughable. Their call for compensation pushed the ridiculous into the realm of fantasy.

So-called human rights bodies and their working groups have a long and sorry history as pompous, censorious bodies whose understanding of human rights bears little resemblance to traditional notions of human rights. In March 2006, the UN dismantled the former Human Rights Commission after that body became an utter embarrassment. The commission included members from Sudan, China, Cuba and Zimbabwe — countries that engaged and continue to engage in gross human rights abuses. Not even the UN could stomach the tarnished body.

The new Human Rights Council was meant to be different, with higher membership standards, where countries accused of systematic human rights abuses could be suspended. It’s curious then that Saudi Arabia’s long history of denying basic rights to women hasn’t affected its membership of the council.

Moreover, as the watchdog organisation UN Watch reported last October, Burundi’s corrupt government has trampled the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and association, committed extrajudicial killings and tortured detainees. Yet last year Burundi was elected to judge human rights on the Human Rights Council.

At a special session of the Human Rights Council last April, a persistent UN Watch delegate asked the council again and again why it has remained silent in the face of Boko Haram committing the most egregious crimes: rapes, kidnappings and murders of thousands of men, women and children over more than five years. With years of evidence before it, during its June 2014 session the UN’s Human Rights Council refused to support a motion to condemn Boko Haram. The text of the motion was withdrawn.

Last September, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that Australia was seeking a seat on this same Human Rights Council. Lovely yellow souvenirs — mugs, pens and notebooks — have been shipped off to our embassies. Our diplomats have been instructed to give them away to anyone who may help sway votes for Australia over Spain and France. As a senior staff member from one Australian embassy quipped to The Australian, whether it works may depend on the quality of Spain’s mugs and France’s pens.

Australian heads of missions were recently directed to hawk our credentials for the council seat in their Australia Day speeches. Let’s just say that raised a few Australian embassy eyebrows.

And this. There are murmurs about the Turnbull government going soft on Assange, seeking legal advice and shuffling papers, perhaps to facilitate his return to Australia.

Wait. What? Why? If that’s the price for getting a seat on the ridiculous Human Rights Council, then more important voters — Australians — may have a problem with that price.

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