The last five years have seen an explosion in global affairs. After the relative stability of the post-Cold War – the age of market-driven globalisation, US hegemony and Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ – one crisis after another has shaken the policy elite of North America and Europe. The fiscal crisis of the financial bailouts, the monetary crisis of the eurozone, the revolutions of the Arab Spring – Left, Right and centre (both idiomatically and politically), assumptions about the 21st Century have been thrown off-kilter entirely.
In ‘ordinary’ times, the information crisis generated by WikiLeaks would have been monumental. Amidst this cluster-bombing of such monumental events, however, it has received relatively little coverage, and that little has mostly been centred on the figure of its founder, Julian Assange. Though the organisation was founded in 2006, it achieved international notoriety when, in November 2010, it coordinated the simultaneous release of secret US cables in newspapers across the West. Alternately celebrated as a counter-blast to increased state secrecy and vilified as a threat to (inter)national security, the bite-back against the group has been swift and brutal. Direct debit corporations have blocked all donations to the WikiLeaks website, chief whistle-blower Bradley Manning has been apprehended by US authorities, and Assange now finds himself under de facto house arrest in the London Ecuadorian embassy.
The volume and audacity of WikiLeaks undertaking is unprecedented – and yet analysis of these events often falls foul of two assumptions. The first is that the leaked cables are intrinsically valuable for the information they hold. In fact, anyone glancing over them with the vaguest sense of (to quote Noam Chomsky) “how the world works” will find it hard to come by anything genuinely surprising. It’s hardly a revelation that the US and its allies regularly use any means necessary to ensure their continued economic dominance, from direct intervention through to backing terrorist organisations, propping up dictatorships, and even staging coups in non-compliant countries. We didn’t need WikiLeaks to remind us that we supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, or that human rights come second to trade in our dealings with China, or that, three decades to the day before 9/11, the CIA helped depose the democratically-elected government of Chile and installed a suitably pro-American military junta.
Rather, it is the US’s response to the releases that is telling, confirming every charge of unscrupulous dealing implicit in the cables. Like a gangland boss putting out the word, Obama’s administration has called in all its favours to contain the situation. It is particularly convenient that the sex assault charges against Assange in Sweden have arisen just at this point – charges that the investigative journalist John Pilger has called “absurd”, motivated by political expediency rather than blind justice. One is reminded of how, unable to pin anything concrete on the 1920s mobster Al Capone, the US state finally tripped him up on income tax evasion.
These charges have certainly muddied the water, splintering the (generally liberal and Leftist) support for Assange into those who dismiss them and those who hold that he should be extradited to stand trial in Scandinavia. This second position betrays considerable naivety about the workings of modern international relations. Sources such as The Guardian assure us that Assange will remain in Sweden if extradited via the UK, yet evidence published by WikiLeaks itself has revealed the extent of both nations’ capitulation to their counterpart security agencies in the US. The accused should, of course, be subject to the same workings of the law as anyone else, but it seems perverse that, in order for this to happen, he should be put at risk of abuse himself. Others – the majority of them falling outside American legal jurisdiction – have found themselves in a Guantanamo Bay cell for worse.
Manning meanwhile, having defied his military masters in the outrageous belief that citizens deserve to know what their governments are up to, is already imprisoned and on trial as a traitor – a crime for which, in the US, a legally viable punishment is death. All this from a president who, as recently as 2009, defended whistle-blowers as a vital component of modern democracy.
Despite what’s just been said, the second mistaken assumption is that this whole affair is about personalities. Assange cuts an almost Bond-villain figure in the press, and he and Manning seem set to make Amnesty’s Individuals at Risk register, but their individual plight is only the tip of the iceberg. This is about human rights on the broadest possible level: it is hard to think of a situation where the conflict between authority and liberty, between the powerful few and the powerless many, has been so crystallised. We are constantly told that to act unilaterally on tax avoidance or low pay or carbon emissions is nowadays impossible, and yet when ‘national security’ is at stake we can assemble an instantaneous multilateral coalition. The intergovernmental crackdown has made WikiLeaks a self-fulfilling prophecy – as with the repression of the global labour movement of the late-19th and early 20th Centuries, states have signed their own admission of guilt.
It was perhaps to be expected that, in the age of the internet, something like WikiLeaks was to arise sooner or later. It is important less for what it has actually revealed than for what it represents: a civil society fightback against the kind of authoritarian structures which commit, allow and conceal human rights abuses. Put in those terms, it sounds a lot like Amnesty International.