The Washington Post

Wikileaks: Did Ecuador make the right decision?

Aug 16, 2012

Ecuador said Thursday that it was granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Although Assange faces charges of sexual misconduct, the decision was made among concerns that Assange would not get a fair trial on the U.S.

In upholding the tradition of asylum, has Ecuador forgotten that it is for political issues, not criminal acts? In quickly raising the possibility of revoking the Ecuadoran Embassy's status, is Britain playing too casually with a sacred precedent?

Did Ecuador make the right ethical decision? Brad Hirschfield discussed this topic with readers at 11 a.m. ET.

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Ecuador grants Julian Assange asylum, but in doing so, are they actually devaluing this sacred tradition? 

Whatever one thinks about Assange, can anyone justify using political asylum to protect someone from a sex crimes investigation?


What about Great Britains rush to suggest that they could revoke the Ecuadorian embassy's diplomatic status?  Is that really the way to go here, or like the Ecaudorians, is something else going on here?


What do you think?  Lets go!

What is Ecuador trying to do by granting asylum? What do you think is the ultimate purpose?

Based on comments of both President Correa and his Foreign Minister, comments declaring that they can do what they choose because "they are not a colony", it seems that they are simply seizing an opportunity to thumb their noses at both Great Britain and the United States. 

Any chance the sex charges Assange faces are fabricated/trumped up? Doesn't it seem awfully convenient that an internationally controversial figure that the government's had difficulty getting its hands on gets detained over something that's dependent upon circumstantial evidence?

Is there a chance?  Sure, which is why he should come clean and defend himself.


Any time someone asks about it being "awfully convenient" I am pretty sure that their mind is made up, which is exactly the problem here.  Also, to desparage sex crimes as simply based on circumstantial evidence comes pretty close to offensively dismissing the realty of such crimes and the agony inflicted on their victims.  I don't imagine that is what you intended, but still...

The logic I'm hearing from a lot of people is that Sweden wouldn't be prosecuting Assange for sexual misconduct if it weren't for Wikileaks, so they shouldn't be prosecuting him. I think that's ridiculous -- it's terrible that worse offenses haven't been prosecuted, but that doesn't give JA a pass. Then you get to how likely it is that Sweden would extradite JA to the U.S. to stand trial for Wikileaks, and how likely it is that JA will receive a fair trial in the U.S. if he is extradited, and meanwhile, the women who claim he assaulted them are left hanging. Ecuador is making this decision based on several possibilities of uncertain likelihood, and I think that's a problem.

Couldn't agree more.  The real tragedy is that two women with what Sweden, a country not terribly interested in the whole WikiLeaks deal, deems to be real complaints, are not getting any kid of justice.  To be clear, I am NOT saying that they are right, simply that they deserve to go through the process of being heard and their claims investigated.  Instead of caring about that, the Ecuadorian government is simply exploiting the situation for their own politcal purposes. 

Ecuador... Britain... Sweden... the USA. I can't find a way to frame the ethical issues, because there's too many layers of international diplomacy to untangle.

You are correct about the many layers of international diplomacy, so let me see if I can't help you with the ethical issues here.

1. Are the positions being advanced actually being used for their stated purpose, or are they simply moves in a proxy fight about altogether different issues.  If it's the latter then we are dealing with lying.


2.  Is there an ethical failure when people lose sight of real potential victims because they are focused on what they deem to be larger politcal issues?


3. How does one balance the competing demands to honor the diplomatic tradition of asylum and the equally important obligations of extradition?


That's 3 and it's just the start, but I hope it helps.

This situation remind me of Roman Polanski. There is no question that he raped a 13 year old. However, some countries feel that is not a crime and thus won't send him back to the US, in essence giving him political asylum.

Interesting that you raise the Polanski issue.  Though I would find it repugnant, it would at least be more honest if the Ecuadorians would say that they simply don't believe the women in Sweden or that they don't think charges of rape and sexual assault are so important because after all "such things are socially contextual" and in their context, it's "no big deal".


Is that what they are basing their decision on?  If so, let them say it.  In fact, they have said that this is all about protecting JA from the US, and President Correa has made that argument for two years!

Can't a country determine why it grants anylum to someone? Must it be for political reasons only? If that's the case, can the country in which the embassy located ( in this case the UK) storm the embassy to take the prisoner? That seems like violation to me.

Two good questions, both of which need longer answers than can be supplied here, but let me try to help.


Re the asylum question, the conventions which guide this policy and give it some real value across the globe, all hinge on it being about politcal issues, NOT criminal issues.  The hope is that while nations may disagree about politics, they will agree about not offering protection to simple criminals.


The Brits DO have some legal standing to revoke an embassy's status, so it might not be a violation of British law.  That said, it could set a very bad precedent which could help to undermine the value of embassies as safe zones.  Frankly, it seems to me that even if they have legal legs upon which to stand, this is an action to be undertaken VERY cautiously, and thaty they chose to invoke their right to do so, so quickly, strikes me as unwise.

Why Guantanamo detainees are held without charge or trial for years. Is that kind of fair trail that you see in USA for Julian Assange?

Even though your question is clearly rhetorical, and you probably have little interest in a serious response, I will offer one.


I think that people who make war on the United States are not entitle to the same due process as common criminals, and so far both PResidents Bush and Obama, and their respective Justice Departments, agree about that.  That said, I appreciate your concern about any form of administrative detention because of its potential abuses.  Here's the thing though:  none of this matters in the JA case!


This is about investigating a sex crime, and that alone.  The Swedes have not said whether they would even cooperate with extradtion to the US, so invoking Gauntanamo, or the supposed unfairness of the US legal system, or anything else is simple not germaine.  In fact, it smacks of exactly the kind of politcal war by proxy in which it appears the Ecaudoreans are interested.

What's Sweden's take on this since they're the sovereign country that put out the warrant for Assange's arrest? Britian is only attempting to execute that warrant and send him there. They don't have a vested interest in him beyond the extradition.

Exactly!  That's what strikes me as particulalry eggregious about Ecuador's actions.  There is plenty of room to debate JA and the ethics of WikiLeaks, plenty, but that is NOT the issue here.


Sweden simply wants to investigate potential sex crimes against it's citizens.  How that gets lost in all of this, boggles the mind and should actually be offensive, no matter how much one may believe in JA and his publishing venture.

Is it certain that Sewden is anxious to send him to the US to face charges?

Not at all!  In fact, real controversey could arise there, whcih makes the Swedes interest here especially pure and honorable. 

Both Assange and Ecuador say Assange would happily go to Sweden for questioning -- Assange hasn't been charged with anything 00 were it to agree not to send him on to the USA. This would seem to negate the sex crimes aspect of this incident, yet you continue to harp on it. Why, if not to steer public opinion against Assange?

Actually neither have said that.  Ecuador, and only Ecuador -- not JA, have offered Swedish officials the opportunity to interview him in their embassy.  He has not been charge because Sweden is especially cautious about bringing charges, and it seems like a good policy to me.  They have also indicated that they are prepared to go to trial and that is why the interview gambit is pointless.


Actually, I don't even think that JA is the issue here, except that like the Ecaudorans, he seems interested in thumbing his nose at those he deems to be too mcuh in power.  If anything, I think that there is far more to defend about the actions of WikiLeaks than about the behavior of the Ecuadoran government in this case.

Asylum is often granted because disagreement about what the legal concepts are in the two countries. America wouldn't extradite a Saudi rape alleger who faced prosecution for adultery.

Your first observation is certainly correct.  Your second is not entirely clear to me.  If your claim is that the US would protect a woman from potential execution for committing adultery, you are correct.  If you are saying that a charge of rape, even if it carried the death penalty in another country, would garner a politcal asylum, I am not so sure.  Either way, this is about granting asylum for something which may or may not happen.  The US goverment has brought no charges against JA, and it has largely been a political talking point for those who oppose him, not a legal issue. 

Does he continue to live in the embassy in London? For how long? (Soon to become the unwelcome guest who cannot leave?) Can they give him a diplomatic passport to leave the UK and fly to Ecuador?

The practical issues you raise are not only real, but can even be funny.  Some years back, there was an attempt to fly a Ningerian refugee out in a diplomatic pouch -- in his case, a shipping container.


British authorities have said that they will arrest JA the moment he leaves the emabassy.  It does raise the question of the diplomatic status of embassy vehicles, and other related issues, but it seems that if they want to badly enough, they can make it impossible for JA to even leave the embassy grounds, leaving him in a self-imposed prison.


Frankly, I am left seeing one side engaged in thumbing it's nose at other nations because it delights them to do so, positioning them as some kind of self-described "anti-colonialist" heros, and the other side making this more than it needs to be -- talking about legal rights to enter an embassy before exploring all possible means to resolve the issue. 



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Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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