Category Archives: United Nations

The Saga of Julian Assange - The New York Times 20160207

The Saga of Julian Assange - The New York Times 20160207

Julian Assange


The curious case of Julian Assange got curiouser last week when a United Nations rights panel concluded that the WikiLeaks founder has been “arbitrarily detained” by Britain and Sweden for more than five years, including the past three and a half years that he has been holed up as a diplomatic refugee in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. The finding, which is not legally enforceable, was “ridiculous,” responded the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond. But then so is much else in this convoluted saga, which should be drawn to a close.

Mr. Assange, 44, a onetime computer hacker with an Australian passport, has spent those five years fighting or evading British efforts to extradite him to Sweden, which says it wants to question him about accusations of rape. Mr. Assange and his backers say what is really going on is an attempt to extradite him to the United States to face charges for WikiLeaks’s role in receiving and publishing tens of thousands of secret American military and diplomatic cables in 2010. The New York Times and The Guardian also published many of the cables. Neither Sweden nor the United States has filed formal charges against Mr. Assange.

On Friday, the five-member United Nations “working group on arbitrary detention,” which is under the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and to which Mr. Assange appealed, declared that his ordeal amounted to being “subjected to different forms of deprivation,” which were arbitrary because of the “lack of diligence” by Swedish prosecutors.

Though Swedish prosecutors have said they only want to question Mr. Assange, they insisted that this must take place in Sweden — until last March, when they changed their mind and said they were willing to go to London. They haven’t yet, though Mr. Assange has said all along he’s agreeable to an interrogation there.

The United States also has not filed formal charges against Mr. Assange and what they would charge him with is not clear. In the end, the United Nations ruling, dubious as it may seem, might offer a way for Sweden and Britain to walk away from a case that has not made much sense from the outset.

On Assange, Following the Rules or Flouting Them? - Human Rights Watch 20160205

On Assange, Following the Rules or Flouting Them? - Human Rights Watch 20160205

It should not have been terribly surprising to Sweden or the United Kingdom that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that the various forms of confinement suffered by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange violate his human rights. The Working Group has many times warned that it is unlawful to force someone to choose between liberty and a fundamental right, such as asylum, which Assange now enjoys only so long as he stays inside the walls of the Ecuadorean embassy.

What is news are the deplorable rhetorical parries from the UK and Swedish governments, who both stated not just disagreement, but that the Working Group opinion would have absolutely no effect on their actions. This is not what one expects from democratic governments who usually support the UN mechanisms and international law.

“This changes nothing,” declared the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The foreign secretary diplomatically called the ruling “frankly ridiculous,” disparaging the Working Group as “a group of laypeople, not lawyers” (in fact, many of the experts are professors of law or human rights or both). Sweden managed to avoid imprecation, but was no less unreceptive. The Foreign Ministry declared that the Working Group had no right to “interfere in an ongoing case handled by a Swedish public authority” and continued to insist that “Mr. Assange is free to leave the Embassy at any point.” As for the Prosecutor’s Office, it declared the UN body’s opinion “has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law.”

While the Working Group does not have the authority to force governments to heed its decisions, it is the authoritative voice of the UN on the issue of arbitrary detention, and its opinions are given great weight as interpretations of binding international law obligations. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights today attempted to remind Sweden and the UK of that in a discrete Note to Editors, saying the opinions should be taken into consideration as they are based on international human rights law that binds the relevant states.

Not much consideration appears to be happening. The UK has said that it will arrest Assange if he leaves the shelter of the embassy, either because of the European arrest warrant the Swedish prosecutor issued to investigate allegations of sexual offenses, or because he violated the conditions of his house arrest by going directly from his last UK court appearance to the Ecuadorean embassy in London to apply for asylum.

The Working Group found that Assange’s confinement – first in a UK prison, then under house arrest, and now in the embassy – violated his human rights. Given that Assange has claimed political asylum, a claim Ecuador recognizes but the UK and Sweden have not taken into account, the Working Group said his freedom of movement and security as a refugee should be respected, and compensation awarded.

Both Sweden and the UK are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the treaty on which much of the decision rests, and are bound by other customary international law against returning refugees to locations where they risk persecution. Their failure to give due consideration to these international rights and obligations is what drove the conclusion that Assange’s confinement is “arbitrary.”

Let’s be clear: the issue is not Assange fleeing Swedish justice; he has continually expressed his willingness to be investigated by Sweden. What he won’t do is risk eventual extradition to the United States, which would like to prosecute him under the Espionage Act.

That is because WikiLeaks revealed the embarrassing diplomatic cables that Chelsea Manning leaked. And if you look at Manning’s fate, Assange has plenty to fear. Manning was abused in pretrial detention, denied the defense that the public interest justified her disclosures, and sentenced to 35 years. A secret US grand jury has been investigatingAssange on related Espionage Act charges for close to five years. Neither Sweden nor the UK will promise Assange he won’t be extradited, and both are close US allies in national security and intelligence affairs.

So who are the losers? Assange, who has already been confined longer than the maximum term he would serve in a Swedish prison were he found guilty, and the Swedish women who made the original allegations, and whose government won’t pursue the matter if it means protecting Assange from extradition to the US.

And now the UK and Sweden are big losers as well. Their fatuous dismissal of the Working Group won’t impugn this necessary and neutral body that was established by the world’s governments to uphold rights. But both have severely damaged their own reputation for being so ready to dismiss upholding inconvenient human rights obligations and their credibility as global advocates for rights by refusing to respect the institution of asylum.

Canadian Civil Liberties Association welcomes concluding observations for Canada by UN Human Rights Committee - 20150723

Canadian Civil Liberties Association welcomes concluding observations for Canada by UN Human Rights Committee - 20150723


This morning, the UN Human Rights Committee — the independent treaty body that monitors state implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) — released its concluding observations on Canada. CCLA had provided written submissions to the Committee in advance of the hearings. On July 7th and 8th, CCLA Executive Director and General Counsel Sukanya Pillay (accompanied by Brenda McPhail, CCLA Director, Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project) made oral submissions in Geneva about our specific concerns.

“CCLA welcomes the observations of the UN Human Rights Committee,” said Pillay. “We presented it with serious concerns, including the range of problems with Bill C-51, such as accountability deficits, excessive and unchecked CSIS powers, information sharing without caveats, and no fly lists without due process. We also called for accountability for excessive use of police force during the G20 and Montreal student protests and for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Further, we came out strongly on ending the overuse of segregation and solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, particularly in the case of mentally ill individuals.”

She added, “There are serious human rights concerns at play today in Canada and they must be urgently addressed.” 

CCLA urged the Committee to consider Canada’s recent passing of Bill C-51 and its impact on fundamental human rights, including due process; fundamental justice; liberty and security of person; privacy and the dangers of mistaken information sharing and mass surveillance; and failures of oversight and review regarding national security agencies.

CCLA also provided argument on the following:

  • Recent amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and contraventions of the principle of non-refoulement (not to remove an asylum-seeker or refugee and send them to a place where they are at risk of being harmed);
  • The need to have a national inquiry into murdered and disappeared Aboriginal women;
  • The overrepresentation of Aboriginal men and women in the criminal justice system;
  • The need to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
  • The need to ensure that policies promote and do not obstruct equality between men and women;
  • The use of force by police, particularly during the 2012 and 2015 Quebec protests, and the kettling and arrests of the 2010 Toronto G20 protesters;
  • Constraints upon protest by indigenous groups and environmental groups;
  • Restrictions on protest and the shrinking of public space and impact upon freedoms of expression and association;
  • Concerns about overcrowding in prisons, the overuse of administrative segregation of prisoners, the continued use of segregation and solitary confinement in federal prisons, and, in particular, CCLA argued against the use of segregation for persons with mental health issues;
  • Guidelines regarding the use of CEWs (conducted energy weapons, such as tasers) by police and CCLA’s call for a higher threshold for use;
  • Concerns about Canada’s failure to comply with interim measures and decisions of the Committee pursuant to the Optional Protocol’s Individual Complaints Process of the Covenant.

Note, these issues are actively being pursued by CCLA within Canada. In addition to our advocacy on all of the issues above, CCLA has:

  1. Launched a constitutional challenge of Bill C-51 (Anti-terrorism Act 2015);
  2. Launched a constitutional challenge of legislative provisions which permit solitary confinement/segregation in federal prisons;
  3. Launched a constitutional challenge to federal privacy law which permits the private sector to unlawfully provide personal identifying information to Government, and
  4. Taken up the cause of representing someone who has submitted an individual complaint to the Committee arguing against deportation because he was born and raised and has lived his entire life in Canada and considers it his own country.

In issuing its concluding observations this morning, the UN Human Rights Committee has made recommendations that closely align with CCLA’s recommendations. In particular, the Committee has called upon Canada to:

  • Give full effect to the Committee’s views pursuant to the Optional Protocol and in keeping with General Comment 33 (2009);
  • Ensure gender equality between men and women, particularly with respect to pay gaps;
  • Conduct a national inquiry into murdered and disappeared Aboriginal women and girls and into the root causes for violence;
  • To amend C-51 to make it compliant with the ICCPR and not to undermine human rights — particular comment was paid to CCLA’s submitted concerns, including new CSIS warrant provisions; lack of oversight or review mechanisms, resulting in accountability failures for national security agencies; mass surveillance and privacy rights; ensuring that the new Security of Canada Information Sharing Act does not result in further human rights abuses through information sharing errors; and calling on Canada to ensure effective due process regarding the No Fly List;
  • Detention of refugees and migrants should be a measure of last resort — health care services should be provided and the principle of non-refoulement should be upheld; in particular, sections of the IRPA which result in refoulement and proposed legislation including Bill 60 which would threaten refoulement should be amended;
  • Reduce overcrowding in prisons, minimize the use of administrative segregation in prisons and use disciplinary segregation only as a measure of last resort; and avoid segregation for individuals with mental health issues;
  • Restore the state’s commitment to principles of freedom of association, assembly, and expression by supporting these rights; removing unnecessary restrictions, and engaging in dialogue with civil society and indigenous groups;
  • Excessive use of force by police during protests must be promptly and impartially investigated, and violators must be prosecuted and punished with appropriate penalties
  • Implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Additionally, the Committee made important recommendations, which CCLA supports, regarding Canada’s requirement to ensure Canadian businesses do not commit human rights abuses abroad, and that Canada must consult with indigenous groups and work to ensure their land title rights are upheld.

>> View the Committee’s full concluding observations

>> View CCLA’s shadow report to the Committee

>> View Sukanya Pillay’s oral remarks to the Committee