Tuesday, 16 January 2018
European Council: Statements
At December's meeting the assembled Ministers discussed migration. Yet again, we are told the discussion was based on a note circulated by President Tusk which focused on "preventing mass arrivals at external borders and tackling the root causes of the migration crisis". In the short time available to me, I would like to raise two subjects that circle the questions of asylum and migration which often result in a red mist descending over western liberal eyes. They are the position of Julian Assange and the situation in Syria.
Since Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London five years ago and was granted asylum, the focus has drifted from him and his rights under international law; in its place there is a poisonous consensus in both the right-wing and left-wing media that he is in the embassy of his own free will, that he can walk away any time he likes, that the threat posed by the US Government is overstated, that he is just a publicity seeking narcissist and that people who are not great and who have character flaws do not deserve human rights. The media consensus on this issue is a complete distortion of the reality and an uncritical acceptance of what can only be called UK and US Government propaganda.
With the spotlight off Julian Assange's human rights, it is up to us to put the issue centre stage. In February 2016 the working group on arbitrary detentions which falls under the UN's Human Rights Council ruled that Julian Assange, effectively after more than five years of imprisonment, had been deprived of his rights under international law and was the subject of arbitrary detention. It called for him to be allowed to exercise his right to freedom of movement and be offered compensation for his detention. The UK and Swedish Governments responded by completing ignoring this call and, in doing so, ignored their obligations under international human rights law. When the same group issued a decision in 2008 that Aung San Suu Kyi was being held in arbitrary detention, the UK Government, with its European counterparts, were quick to condemn it and call for her release.
Universal human rights do not mean one law for people we like and another for people we do not. We should remind our European counterparts of this. The working group's decision was made two years ago, but the issue of Julian Assange's human rights has faded from public discussion in favour of tidbits about celebrity visitors and involvement in publicising the Democratic National Committee leaks. There is little discussion of the basic fact that he is bring detained arbitrarily by the United Kingdom in contravention of international law and his right to asylum. This is all the more surprising given that in April last year the director of the CIA called WikiLeaks "a hostile, non-state intelligence service" and Julian Assange a demon who had no right to the protections of the First Amendment. In the same month he confirmed that the United States had prepared a warrant for his arrest which it called "a priority". It is worrying that the United Kingdom and the United States have manufactured this consensus on human rights and international law and the right to asylum. The next time the Minister of State sits down with her European counterparts I ask her to make it known that Julian Assange must be allowed to leave the embassy with cast iron guarantees on his release that he can exercise his right to asylum in Ecuador without fearing extradition to an English or an American supermax prison.
One of the root causes of migration is the conflict in Syria. The way in which the debate is represented in Ireland and across Europe has been incredibly naive and simplistic, as it is portrayed as a debate between good and bad, with a demand that one has to take only one side. Deputy Mick Wallace and I were criticised for our visit to Syria and call for an end to sanctions which we based on our support for fundamental human rights and decades of evidence that sanctions hurt ordinary people far more than regimes. However, in some quarters that was somehow filtered through the Syrian distortion filter as expressing support for Bashar al-Assad. I hope that when the Government goes to the European Union, it will portray the reality of Syrian politics and society which is a kaleidoscope and not black and white. No society is black and white and it is profoundly wrong and short-sighted of those who are not part of Syrian society to assume entrenched positions on what is happening there. All we can do is listen to the people whose country it is and be guided by them to support them in their efforts. It is not for us to impose our will or conception of what is right for them. That is precisely the paternalism that drove 19th century imperialism and that is driving western interventions in sovereign states, which has led to 65 million people being driven out of their homes. If we want to help the Syrian people, our only choice is to embrace nuance and avoid at all costs the temptation to assume the right to speak for and represent them.
I refer to the words of a Syrian youth activist who is implacably opposed to both President Assad and ISIS and puts forward a view that is the way forward when he talks about those from outside deciding what is right. He said:
They are interested in high-politics, not grassroots struggles. They are dealing with grand ideologies and historical narratives, but they don’t see people - the Syrian people aren’t represented. They are holding on to depopulated discourses that don’t represent human struggle ... We as a people are not merely a tool for the narratives of the western left. This is our country. We are not guests.