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Dear Mr. High Commissioner: Help Free Assange

Above photo: Volker Türk, at left, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, on Sept. 11, 2023, for the opening of the 54th session of the Human Rights Council; Václav Bálek, president of the Human Rights Council, on right. UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré.

In an open letter, Christophe Peschoux, recently retired from the U.N. Human Rights Office, calls on his former boss to help the WikiLeaks publisher.

Assange’s legal appeal will be heard in London later this month.

Mr. High Commissioner,

On 20-21 February, a High Court in London will decide Julian Assange’s fate: freedom or death. Two judges will decide whether the WikiLeaks founder will still be able to lodge an ultimate appeal, or will end his days in an American jail.

Mr. Assange has committed no crime. His only fault is to have revealed some of the crimes of the powerful of our time. Lèse majesté crime!

American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have destroyed millions of lives and ruined these countries for generations to come. No one has been prosecuted. On the contrary, these crimes have been covered up with impunity in the United States. And yet Mr. Assange is being punished for having published evidence of some of them. Political justice.

He is charged under a treason law dating from the first world war in 1917. Can one betray the laws of a country that is not our own? Is American law universal?  To accept it would be to dangerously open the door to the arbitrariness that comes with unchecked power: tomorrow, another powerful state could arrogate to itself the right, under the law of the strongest, to prosecute a foreign journalist, researcher or rights activist accused of breaking its law.

Under international law, depriving someone of their liberty is an exceptional decision, which must be duly justified to ensure fair proceedings. Yet, presumed innocent like any accused, Mr. Assange has been imprisoned without trial for almost five years as a dangerous criminal in a high-security prison near London. No release on bail for him, under judicial supervision, pending the outcome of proceedings that are clearly dragging their feet and taking their ease with time — the short time of a man’s life.

Why? To prevent him from the risk of escaping from a justice, which in his case, is set to fail him. Do the British judges who lent their names to this parody and threw him in jail, like a public enemy, wonder why their decisions are held in suspicion?  Presumption of innocence? Yes, but he must be punished first.

In the United States, he is charged with 18 counts  that carry a total of 175 years in prison. If extradited, he will have little chance of a fair trial. The court that will try him is located a stone’s throw from the C.I.A. headquarters, in a community of former or actual employees of its services, some of whose criminal practices WikiLeaks has revealed. During the special proceeding that will be imposed on him, his right to a defence will be compromised.

The villains who have been dragging him through the mud and hounding him for 14 years, thanks to the powerful relays of servile media, have no interest in a prolonged public trial that would open the Pandora’s box of America’s countless crimes. They accused him of rape and of endangering American lives. Neither charges stood up to the test of evidence.

Others before him who became embarrassing, such as Jeffrey Epstein or his accomplice in France, were found “suicided” in their cells in dubious circumstances. It would be easy to put his death down to exhaustion and the despair of a life deprived of hope, meaning and freedom.

None of the European states that preach the rule of law, democracy and human rights, yet trample them underfoot every day, has offered Mr. Assange political asylum. To allow the U.K. to extradite this man without a word to stop it, in the name of a justice that is not our own, but the black robe of the powers that be, is to consent to be an accomplice of his deportation.

Why are all Western states so determined to violate, left and right in his case, national and international human rights standards ? Is it to ensure that his torment is made a visible deterrent to dissuade others to expose certain of “our” crimes?

Mr. High Commissioner,

Mr. Assange is a defender of human rights; an innovative journalist and creative publisher; he is one of us. He should not be locked up but standing with us in our office. Is he not persecuted for doing what every serious investigative journalist, every serious human rights investigator, every one of us in this office should be doing every day: investigating allegations, documenting states and other crimes and promoting truth, accountability and justice?

The fight for his freedom is not just a battle to free a man unduly pilloried by our modern inquisitions. It is one of the emblematic battles of our time: the battle of right against reason of State; of truth against lies. Free and verified information is indispensable to the exercise of citizenship and the duty of transparency incumbent upon every democratic government.

This battle is also emblematic of the gaping divide at the heart of our societies that is dangerously paving the way for future tyrannies and rumbling revolts: the recurrent confrontation between “we, the peoples” (as the preamble of the U.N. Charter begins) and the arrogant and uninhibited violence of the world’s “elites,” who are increasingly dissociated from society and for whom the human rights of others — which they enjoy— have become a “has-been” embarrassment. Were not human rights born of this struggle ? History continues.

All human-rights and press-freedom groups consider Mr. Assange’s indictment to be the most serious threat worldwide to press freedom in the United States and elsewhere. Our office, however, has remained conspicuously silent. How is it that successive high commissioners have carefully ignored him and have not dared to say a word in his defence?

I did not wait, Mr. High Commissioner, until I retired last October, to inform the office of the threats to our rights and freedoms posed by his persecution. I kept the management team informed on the basis of verified information. I worked in my spare time, and with several special rapporteurs, to ensure that the U.N. spoke out and said the law. As my successive memos went unanswered, hoping to reach their heart, I composed and sent Mrs. Bachelet, [who served as U.N high commissioner of human rights from 2018 to 2022] and then you, the poem appended to this letter: “A quarter to midnight.” Your silence was matched by that of most of my colleagues. Fear to speak and cowardice, Mr. High Commissioner, reign in the United Nations Human Rights Office.

I am well aware that your job is one of the most difficult among these disunited nations, each of them pulling the human rights fig leaf to hide its shame.

I also know that the funding of this office is political, and that it is the richest states that hold the strings of our purses. But if this office lacks resources commensurate with the challenges it faces — the rule of a just law is everywhere on the defensive — compromising its independence and impartiality for a few million dollars is a dubious calculation.

Isn’t it better to have a small ship sailing valiantly on the crests of international standards to show the way ahead, than a heavy liner emptied of its soul?

More than money, the world today needs the height and moral authority of someone who speaks out, above the fray of history and its battlefields, to remind us of the perils of unchained hubris, to get things back on track and avoid the worst. But moral authority is not a question of position and can only be acquired through integrity, courage and example.

You only have four years, Mr. High Commissioner, to “make a difference” in the real world. Whatever you do, to balance wolf and lamb, at the end of your term, the powers that chose you will spit you out like a cherry stone. Don’t exchange what’s left of the soul of this office, which the world badly needs, for the mirages of an OHCHR 2.0.

Exposing the truth must not become a crime.

Isn’t it high time for this office to make its voice heard above the compromises and short-term interests that stifle life? A freed voice that demands, without modesty, Julian Assange’s freedom for the sake of our own.
It’s already late, Mr. High Commissioner, a quarter to midnight past…

Quarter to midnight…
It’s high time my friends
That we realize
That the persecution
Of Julian Assange
Is also our own…
That he is one of us
And a pathfinder
Of some of the crimes
Of these dreadful times
Made in our name…
Hostage of conscience
Detained in the heart
Of democracies
Which show by his plight
What they‘re underneath…
His persecution
Is a frontal blow
At the foundation
Of our polities
To challenge our rights
Our right to think free
And to be informed
To speak and to act
To exchange and share
And build together
With our hands, our minds
The warmth of our hearts
And our eyes opened
The world, which we want
To live and love in…
— I say the world, which
We want to live in
And not just the show
Where we pass and dream…
The freedom of speech
Of information
And of a free press
Still independent…
Our right to the truth
And our need to know
What those we elect
Do in our name
Especially when
They use the shadows
To commit their forfeits…
The right of any
To freely inquire
In any matter
Of public concern
And protect their sources
Without reprisal…
The courage and right
Of whistle-blowers
To disclose the facts
That hurt their conscience
And to be protected
By law and justice
If they are attacked…
The duty to protect
Our own privacy
Which is essential
To the blossoming
Of our true being…
The right to fair trial
Not to be deprived
Of one’s liberty
The right not to be
Subject to torment
For having acted in
Soul and conscience…
The right to respect
And to protection
For daring to speak
And stand by the truth…
Isn’t it what we
Do stand for and we
Do every day
Undressing states’ crimes
Exposing their lies
Promoting justice
Isn’t it our mission
And the raison d’être
Of our commitment
To keep the light on
Through Julian’s ordeal
It is our freedoms
That are undermined
The very spirit
Of democracy
Which remains the least
Of the worst regimes
To live and work in
Despite all its faults
Betrayals and filth
Its caricatures
And its perversions…
Its myriad of crimes
Made in our name
With impunity
Without us knowing…
How many countries
Have been torn to pieces
How many people
Were decimated
By this world of ours
It’s our liberties
That are under siege
Now on borrowed time
Its is already
A quarter to midnight…
He has been paying
Ten years of his life
Deprived of the sun
For exposing the truth
And ignominy
Of brutal powers
And laid bare their words…
Rather than silence
Should not our office
Bestow him the price
Let’s not add to his
Torment, the weight of
Our indifference
And add our disgrace
To his pillory…
We have the duty
To firmly oppose
His extradition
Which for sure will sign
His sentence of death
By a law that is
That of the strongest…
From a procedure
To a procedure
Those who want his life
In the name of justice
That is not our own
Will keep him confined
The rest of his life
In a cell of shame…
If he does not die
Before, of despair
For having too much
Believed in freedom
In the power of truth
These precious values
That institutions
Are meant to defend…
If he does not put
In act of despair
An end to himself
And to the non-life
That has become his…
There are reasons to fear
That he may be found
Lifeless one morning
“Suicided” in his cell
Like those before him
Who have become
Too embarrassing
To the powers that be…
Those who want him
For having unmasked
Some of their secrets
And their many lies
And shaken up their thrones
Have no interest
In a long trial
That would open up
The Pandora’s box
Of some of their crimes
And make them public…
It will be futile
When he will be gone
Across the ocean
Or the river Styx
To cry on his heels
Praise his memory
And beg his pardon
For not having reached
Our hand out in time…
Julian has no need
For crocodile tears…
In the lone descent
Of his dark exile
He expects the smile
Of our amity
To lighten his heart
And of our support
Conscious and active
Which only can put
An end to his plight…
Every minute counts
It is already
A quarter to midnight…
This poem my friends
Invites you to join
This plea to demand
To the powerful
Who hold in their claws
Julian’s fragile life
To release this man
And through his freedom
To defend our own…
This we do not owe
Solely to him
But also to these
Too precious values
Which we believe in
And which give meaning
And beauty to our lives…
It is now well past
A quarter to midnight…
(April 2022)

Christophe Peschoux is a senior human rights officer and one of the most experienced investigators in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). He devoted 42 years, half in the field, to the protection of refugees and people against the violence of states. He is the author of two books and several articles on the history of the Khmer Rouge. He retired from that office last October but not to causes close to his heart.

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