UN rights expert urges UK and Sweden to serve 'good example,' end arbitrary detention of Assange

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Source: Screen grab from OHCHR video

15 February 2016 – A United Nations human rights expert today called on the United Kingdom and Sweden to promptly accept a UN working group's ruling that Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks website, is being arbitrarily detained and must be allowed freedom of movement.

“The findings of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention should be accepted and their recommendations implemented in good faith,” Alfred de Zayas, the UN Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, said in a press release.

“Especially those States who claim to be at the vanguard of human rights should give good example, even if they do not agree with the conclusions of UN experts,” he added.

The working group ruled in its opinion that Mr. Assange's detention was contrary to various provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and called upon the UK and Sweden to ensure his safety and physical integrity, to facilitate the exercise of his right to freedom of movement, and to pay him compensation.

Mr. Assange, detained first in prison then under house arrest, took refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London in 2012 after losing his appeal to the UK Supreme Court against extradition to Sweden, where a judicial investigation was initiated against him in connection with allegations of sexual misconduct. However, he was not formally charged.

Mr. Assange's WikiLeaks site published confidential diplomatic information, and he has been detained since 2010.

Mr. de Zayas recalled that a just and sustainable international order requires that States respect, promote and fulfil their human rights treaty obligations and observe the recommendations of human rights treaty bodies, working groups and rapporteurs.

“The international order depends on the consistent and uniform application of international law, and is undermined when States pick and choose,” the expert stressed, warning against an à la carte approach to human rights, which erodes the credibility of the entire system.

He emphasized that international order is strengthened when all States comply not only with binding treaty obligations, but also with the recommendations of UN bodies. Not only “hard law” but also “soft law” commitments and human rights pledges should be given effect, he added.

He went on to emphasize that whistle-blowers are key human rights defenders in the 21st century, in which a culture of secrecy, closed-door deals, disinformation, lack of access to information, 1984-like surveillance of individuals, intimidation and self-censorship lead to gross violations of human rights.

“It is important that countries that regularly engage in naming and shaming of other countries accept United Nations rulings when they themselves are implicated,” he said, urging prompt implementation of the Working Group's opinion as it would set an example for the rest of the world.

The Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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