Quiet diplomacy’s failure: The Albanese government and Julian Assange

Apr 6, 2023
Free Julian Assange. PIcture with US flag mouth gag.

Prior to him becoming Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese made a number of declarations to the effect that the Julian Assange affair be brought to a close. The US effort to prosecute, nay persecute the WikiLeaks publisher, would finally be resolved.

Since then, it is very clear, as with all matters regarding US policy, that Australia will do little to irk their bullyboy ally in the quest to punish a publisher for 18 charges, 17 of which are based on the archaic, brutal US Espionage Act of 1917. “Quiet diplomacy” is the official line taken by Albanese and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, a term that can only suggest gross inaction. “We are doing what we can between government and government,” she told the Senate on March 30, “but there are limits to what diplomacy can achieve.”

If one is to believe Wong, these limits are considerable indeed. As Greens Senator David Shoebridge remarks, “‘quiet diplomacy’ to bring Julian Assange home by the Albanese Government is a policy of nothing. Not one meeting, phone call or letter sent.”

This is an image the current chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Labor MP Peter Khalil, is trying to dispel. “I’ve engaged quite a bit with Julian’s family members … and I’ve tried to do some things behind the scenes,” he stated in an interview with Guardian Australia. Again, not exactly comforting to those backing Assange’s cause.

Few have done more digging on the dire state of Australian diplomacy vis-à-vis Assange’s plight than lawyer and advocate Kellie Tranter. The findings from her Freedom of Information requests over the years have been depressing, revealing the deplorable attitudes of Canberra to an Australian citizen speaking uncomfortable truths to insidious power. “They tell the story – not the whole story – of institutionalised prejudgment, ‘perceived’ rather than ‘actual’ risks, and complicity through silence.”

The story comes in a few instalments: initial indifference of Washington to revealing the existence of an ongoing investigation against the Australian citizen; confusion in Canberra over how and whether to make consular interventions; further ambivalence to the international law of arbitrary detention; and the ultimate cold turn to let the UK and US essentially deal with the matter.

Australia’s response to the findings of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) were telling. In February 2016, the WGAD concluded that Assange had been subject to “different forms of deprivation of liberty: initial detention in Wandsworth prison which was followed by house arrest and his confinement at the Ecuadorian embassy.” Assange’s “safety and physical integrity” should also be guaranteed, “his right to freedom of movement” respected, and that he enjoy all “rights guaranteed by the international norms on detention.”

When presented with a clear opportunity to respond to this finding of UN-inspired international law processes, the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop baulked, signing off on a Ministerial Submission recommending that the Assange case not be resolved. In her view, those in Canberra were “unable to intervene in the due process of another’s country’s court proceedings or legal matters, and we have full confidence in the UK and Swedish judicial systems”.

On April 5 2019, an internal email from the Attorney-General’s department shows some awareness of Assange’s imminent eviction from the Ecuadorian embassy, along with a distinct lack of interest in Australia’s obligations to one of their citizens. “FYI – Assange might be evicted. Not sure if his lawyers will make any (not every convincing) arguments about Australia’s responsibilities to him but thought it was worth flagging.”

After the eviction, Tranter’s findings reveal a degree of persistent constipation from Australian consular officials. There was also indignation from DFAT officials about the damningly colourful report from the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer. The UK government, Melzer found, had shown “outright contempt for Mr Assange’s rights and integrity.” Not so, came the view from DFAT, expressing the customary, pigheaded view that the Australian was being well treated in Belmarsh Prison.

The newly appointed Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Stephen Smith, amidst the baubles, is promising little change. Despite telling the ABC that he would be visiting Assange in Belmarsh Prison – at the behest of the publisher’s father, John Shipton – movement is bound to be imperceptibly slow. Smith’s remarks about inquiring into the captive’s “health and wellbeing”, his state, and what could be done by the authorities to improve it, are astonishing. Had the High Commissioner bothered to consult the existing record, including Melzer’s findings, witness statements, not to mention the court findings, he would be more than aware that Assange is in precipitous decline.

As for impressing the current UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman to reverse her predecessor’s decision to approve Assange’s extradition to the US, Smith proved equally disappointing. “It’s not a matter of us lobbying for a particular outcome. It’s a matter for me as the High Commissioner representing to the UK government as I do, that the view of the Australian government is twofold. It is: these matters have transpired for too long and need to be brought to a conclusion, and secondly, we want to, and there is no difficulty so far as UK authorities are concerned, we want to discharge our consular obligations.”

It is true that not all Australian parliamentarians remain slothful and indifferent to Assange’s plight. The “Bring Julian Assange Home” parliamentary group has urged US President Joe Biden to drop the charges. But it is almost impossible to see the Albanese government do anything beyond their “quiet diplomacy” stance, one increasingly impotent in the face of AUKUS and its militaristic bent. Besides, a released Assange might just spill the beans on the nature of an alliance that has turned Australia into a forward base for the US imperium.

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