Alfred de Zayas: As a Whistleblower, Julian Assange Has Done What Every Democrat Should Do, Namely Uncover the Cover-Ups of Our Governments

Alfred de Zayas is a former UN Special Rapporteur, Professor of International Law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

Slava Zilber: First, I would like to talk about the recent events in Bolivia. What is the legitimate government of Bolivia and how does one determine that?

Alfred de Zayas: After the coup d’état against the then President of Bolivia Evo Morales, we basically have a vacuum. Certainly, any government following a coup d’état is by definition not legitimate. So what we need is free elections according to the Bolivian ConstitutionEvo Morales did offer new elections and the military and the police forced him out of office. So that is already a major violation of democratic principles, a violation of the OAS Democratic Charter. He had to flee the country if he wanted to save his life. Apparently, he was to be arrested. Someone was bribed for that purpose. He had considerable difficulty in leaving the country. There were problems with his plane being able to refuel. He was supposed to refuel in Peru – I understand – and then overflight was denied by Peru and also by Brazil. So we have here a very serious breakdown of international law within the Organization of American States. And Mexico offered him and several members of his entourage political asylum. Of course, Evo Morales is entitled to political asylum, but Evo Morales loves his country. Evo Morales loves Bolivians. So, as he said himself: “If they do not want me, I am not going to run for the presidency again.” So the elections which certainly will have to be conducted in the not too distant future will be in a way handicapped because the continuity of the MAS Party (Movimiento al Socialismo) of Evo Morales is put into question because Evo Morales was the leader of this party. If, because of threats of violence and the violence that has already occurred, Evo Morales does not want to provoke and himself run for office, we don’t know what will happen. Of course, there will be some person who will take the leadership of the party from him. The question is whether that person will muster the popular vote that Evo Morales managed to obtain four times in a row.

And let’s not forget that irregularities in elections happen all over the world: in the United States, in Canada, in Brazil, in Chile, in Colombia. Now, if the OAS found that there were irregularities, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. They didn’t finish the recount and I am persuaded that, if the recount had continued and had been completed and then double-checked independently, – maybe Morales did not have 10 percent over his opponent (Carlos) Mesa, but I could see a scenario in which he would have garnered 45 percent of the vote to, say, 37-8 percent by his opponent. That would have required, of course, new elections and Morales was willing to do so until the military forced him out. So we have here a situation of institutional illegality and that means that this Jeanine Áñez who has taken over is certainly not legitimate in this position.

Moreover, there is a major concern with regard to traditional racism in Bolivia. Bolivia was and still is a country in which the white minority population looks down on the indigenous population. Bolivia is, to be conservative, two-thirds indigenous and this indigenous majority has given four times in a row a very, very big vote to Evo Morales. And whatever happens after new elections, whoever the new president of Bolivia is, he or she must take into account that two-thirds to three-fourths of the population is indigenous and that many of these indigenous are supporters of Evo Morales and the policies of his government. So it cannot simply be a rollback, going back to the corrupt, neoliberal governments that Bolivia had prior to Evo Morales. It cannot be retrogression in economic and social rights. There is a principle of non-retrogression in international law.

But what to do now in the international community? Secretary-General António Guterres has sent his Personal Envoy Jean Arnault, a French diplomat and professor at Sciences Po, to Bolivia. Now, Jean Arnault has already been Special Envoy of the Secretary-General to Colombia which is also a minefield. And let’s see what he obtains by way of pacification in Bolivia because our first concern is to save lives and then to organize democratic elections. Also, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has issued several statements, obviously first of all to calm the waters, but also expressing her deep concern for deaths that have occurred as a result of the violence from the far-right opposition to Evo Morales and also from the disproportionate use of force.

It seems like the police is following the instructions of the far-right in Bolivia. Bolivia has a history of far-right governments as many governments in Latin America have been. We have the sad memory of the military juntas in Uraguay, in Argentina, in Chile, but not only. If they were to take over, the result would be retrogression in human rights and that is something that nobody wants. That is something that Michelle Bachelet doesn’t want, something António Guterres doesn’t want. But the main thing is to meditate, to sit down, to talk, to organize elections and then we will take it from there.

 What can be done if Ms. Áñez and the people around her decision to declare a state of emergency and rule without elections? It happened in Egypt.

We had illegality of this nature in numerous countries in Latin America. You had a parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff not too long ago in Brazil and you have a far-right government in Brazil that would not be there if former President Lula had been allowed to run. But again, more and more you see what I term ‘lawfare,’ the instrumentalization of the law for purposes of injustice, of persecution of political rivals. And that is what happened in Brazil: a highly corrupt parliament proceeded to accuse Lula of corruption. And Ms. Áñez has already hinted at that: that she would want to prosecute Morales and his associates for corruption. Now, where is the evidence? And where was the evidence against Lula if you have followed the trial? I am a personal friend of Lula’s attorney Geoffrey Robertson QC and I discussed the case with him. There is really nothing to it but political persecution. It’s a completely trumped-up case against Lula and the purpose was to get him out of the way because he would have been elected president again.

So if Morales were to return to Bolivia, I would see the current, right-wing, illegitimate government, but the government nonetheless, trying to institute legal proceedings against him without any evidence, but simply to defame, simply to destabilize. There is a rather old maxim: Calumniare audacter, semper aliquid haeret. ‘Go ahead and defame audaciously because something is always going to stick.’ So whatever you call Morales, it will stick in the minds of some people.

But back to your initial question on what the United Nations can do. As I said: mediate. I think that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should do as the Office of the Secretary-General has done: also send an envoy to Bolivia to see what is going on and to make sure that it doesn’t gallop away. And then once elections are organized and called for I think it’s important for the United Nations to be there and monitor the elections.

Back in 1994, I was the Representative of the Secretary-General for the elections in Ukraine, in March for the parliamentary elections and in June for the presidential elections. I think there is added value to have the United Nations monitoring elections with a big team, to have other international organs monitor the elections in Bolivia because there is a majority of indigenous in Bolivia and, if the indigenous in Bolivia vote according to their interests, they are likely to elect someone like Evo Morales and not someone like Jeanine Áñez. 

It upsets me very much to see the instrumentalization of religion, the way that Áñez has been relying on Christianity to justify what has been done and also this other far-right leader [Luis Fernando] Camacho saying – or at least, it has been attributed to him – ‘No more Pachamama. No more indigenous religion. We want to put Christ back in Bolivia.’ Now, this is such an obscene misuse of religion and I ask myself if these far-right Bolivians have ever bothered to read the New Testament, in particular, Matthew 5:1-9, the Sermon on the Mount. Have they read Matthew 6, 7, 25? What they are doing is so completely contrary to Christianity that it is offensive to see them invoke Christianity against the policies of Evo Morales which are in a very real sense the implementation of the Sermon of the Mount.

Prof. de Zayas, could you please comment on the treatment of Julian Assange and the legal proceedings against him.

The whole thing was trumped up from the very beginning. It was quite clear that, as long as Julian Assange was divulging the sins of African dictators and of other people in the third world, he was literally showered with human rights awards because they recognized the importance of information. When Julian Assange decided to tackle the United States, from then on his life was in danger. So they trumped up this affair against him in Sweden, something that could have been cleared up very quickly. But, of course, both the Swedish and the United Kingdom administration of justice connived with the United States in persecuting this man. (On November 19ththe investigation was dropped.) Now, if anybody in the world has a claim to asylum, Julian Assange has that claim. And then, when he jumps bail and goes into the Ecuadorian embassy that had given him diplomatic asylum, he does that in extremis. He is a person suffering political persecution. And that is a crucial element that the United Kingdom courts have deliberately ignored. The whole thing is a disgrace for the credibility of United Kingdom justice. What they are doing is a disgrace. It is really destroying the rule of law using the instruments of the law. Obviously, if you are going to apply international law right now: The poor man has already suffered more than six years of isolation in the Ecuadorian embassy plus now 6-7 months that he has been in detention in a high-security prison in Britain. He has been visited by my colleague, the Special Rapporteur on Torture Prof. Nils Melzer, brilliant man. I know him well and have enormous respect for him. Nils has issued reports and press releases, spoken in New York. I just saw a statement he made in the press room of the United Nations in New York about the psychological torture that Julian Assange has endured. When that happens in a country ostensibly under the rule of law like the United Kingdom, when that happens in a country that is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, you start doubting the validity of any claim of the United Kingdom as a country under the rule of law. They are behaving like any despotic government crushing any opposition.

So I am also very, very concerned about the silence of many human rights organizations as I have said in numerous interviews. Over the last forty years, I have worked in the field of human rights as a Senior Officer of the United Nations, as Secretary of the Human Rights Committee, as Chief of the Petitions Department, as a professor of law and professor of human rights law, as a president of several human rights organizations including PEN, Centre Suisse Romand, in Switzerland for seven years et cetera and as an Independent Expert for the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. So I have seen a lot in forty years and I have seen what I call a human rights industry emerge. And the human rights industry is responsive to the donors. It means, if the donors want Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or the International Service for Human Rights to do A, B and C, that is what they are going to do. The donors establish the agenda. The donors play the music and you have to dance to it instead of being independent and coming out with full force and saying that it is absolutely unacceptable what the United Kingdom and the United States are doing to Assange.

It might end up killing him. The man as I have heard from Nils Melzer is not in any good shape. His health is in danger. And if he were to die, it would be a great loss to you, to me, to the world because this man is a human rights defender. As a whistleblower, he has done what every democrat should do, namely uncover the cover-ups of our governments. When our governments systematical-ly lie to us and whitewash their crimes, it’s imperative that there is someone who let’s us know. So I am grateful to Julian Assange and I am grateful to Chelsea Manning and I am grateful to Edward Snowden for letting us know what is going on. And this is happening in our names. These war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Iraq and in Afghanistan and elsewhere happen in our names. And I, as an American citizen, can say: Not in my name! Sorry! I am totally against it! And I am thankful to Assange for making it possible for us to know the crimes that our governments are committing.

But it’s not only the United States. You have here a connivance of a number of countries: Sweden, United Kingdom and all the countries that have denied asylum to Julian Assange. He sought asylum in many countries and country after country said: ‘No, no. Too troublesome. Don’t want it, don’t need it.’ So those countries that denied him asylum – what is their commitment to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and what is their commitment to the underlying principles of asylum law?

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