Transcript and reporting by Maxine Walker, Art by International Artists/Activists Collective, video by Gordon Dimmack.
This is a transcription of the UN Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer’s speech to the Free the Truth event on 3 February 2020. Nils Melzer has been a towering figure in his efforts to gain justice for Julian Assange. His defence of national and international law and human rights provides a stark contrast to the lawlessness of the British government. His determination to challenge governments to comply with the law, particularly the prohibition of torture, stands in start contrast to the overwhelmingly silent- and therefore complicit- British Establishment. His actions are an absolute reproach to British political parties, the intelligentsia, the media and to ‘human rights’ organisations such as Amnesty. In this speech we learn of UK government efforts to intimidate Nils Melzer and his response –‘I will not back down’.
I would recommend also reading a recent interview with Nils Melzer in which he says:
“…if investigative journalism is classified as espionage and can be incriminated around the world, then censorship and tyranny will follow. A murderous system is being created before our very eyes.”
Nils Melzer -I refuse to be intimidated – I will not back down.
200 years ago in this continent – and this island belongs to this continent even today despite all kinds of exits – we decided we no longer wanted absolute governmental power, we no long want rulers that can do with us whatever they want. We want states and governments to be subject to the rule of law.
And we got rid of those absolutist rulers and created democracies and the separation of powers. So now governmental power is divided: the judiciary, the legislative power and the government. They are supposed to control each other, balance each other. The so-called system of checks and balances. And all of this is based on democratic legitimacy. That’s the system, that’s the theory. Now we have a small problem – the human factor. Humans are not by nature democratic, you can see it in traffic. The lower the probability of sanctions, the higher the probability of slight overstepping of lines and violations.
My point is that uncontrolled power will be abused. That’s why we created this 200 years ago. And based on the very painful experience of centuries and centuries of absolutist rule. I am finding that today we are at a point where we might fall back behind that line again. Unwittingly.
This type of system is prone to collusion. Courts, they talk with the Ministers and the Ministers talk with the Members of Parliament, there is party politics and then they have the lobbies. So it’s all a big club – the so-called Establishment. To control that we have the press… That’s what this is about. You need a free press to actually hold governments to account and make sure that they’re actually checking and balancing and they’re not colluding and abusing their power. If the mainstream media no longer does that then it is logical that we will have other actors coming up and trying to inform the people, not just entertain but to empower them so they can exercise democratic control.
So here stops my professor part of the lecture but this is what this is about. This is the context, this is what we are risking to lose when we are starting to imprison people who tell us the truths that are no longer told to us by the governments, no longer told to us by the press.
I started investigating this case last April. I expected this to be very short. I was quite reluctant to get into it; I was poisoned by the same narrative as everybody else. Assange ‘the rapist’, the ‘hacker’, ‘the narcissist’, the ‘spy’. I thought I needed to go to the prison to visit him with two medical doctors, independent experts to be sure we have an objective assessment. I wasn’t expecting to find anything dramatic and to return back to the office and basically go on to deal with ‘real’ torture. What I found was very different. I found a man who had been hunted for a decade. I found documents that illustrated profound corruption in the judicial system. The judicial system had actually been used to persecute a man, to push him into a corner and to intimidate everyone else in the world who could perhaps have the dangerous idea of copying the methods of WikiLeaks and actually inform the public about governments and what they are doing with the tax money that is paid to them and the power that is delegated to them.
The deeper I got into this case the more profoundly I was shocked at how Western democracies have lost their course. I’m not saying you don’t have rule of law in Britain and Sweden, the US and all the other Western countries in cases that don’t threaten establishment power. But as soon as that power is threatened we do not have the rule of law.
I investigated this case and sometimes I have been told ‘you are overstepping the line, this has nothing to do with torture’. I’m asking how does it not have anything to do with torture when a man exposes evidence for war crimes and torture and rape and no-one is being prosecuted for that? How is that not a violation of the prohibition of torture? How is it not a violation of the prohibition of torture when someone is being hunted for years and exposed to intense, deliberate defamation, mobbing and judicial persecution in order to intimidate the world of investigative journalism? Because intimidation not interrogation is the primary purpose of torture throughout the world. Torturers know very well that they when they torture people they might not get the truth. But they know where torture works always is when you want to intimidate people. Not only the victim but everybody else. That’s why women get raped on the village square because everybody needs to be intimidated. That’s the purpose of torture. That’s the true face of torture. That’s what torture is about here too. It’s someone being publicly destroyed in front of our eyes, systematically and painfully – you can watch it in slow motion. To pass the message: if ever you dare to publish information that we declared secret this is what’s going to happen to you. And no-one, not the Special Rapporteur, no-one else, can protect you.
And this is where we have to say stop. I have been mandated by states to report to states about their compliance with the prohibition of torture. I found in this case a violation, I reported it, I stuck to my procedures. But the states didn’t do their job, They did not investigate, they refused to investigate, they refused even to engage in dialogue with me, even to respond to the questions I am mandated by them to ask.
But they say I lost my impartiality. Am I supposed to be impartial between a torturer and the tortured? No. I am supposed to be neutral and objective in investigating a case and not to have any presumption before I’ve actually investigated the case. But once I’ve found that someone has been tortured of course I am not neutral. I will defend the victim of torture.
This case involves torture because Julian Assange has exposed torture and it has not been prosecuted and he is talking about war crimes. But he is being threatened with 175 years in prison. How grotesque is that? A man, who has never killed anybody, who has never used violence on anybody. In the International Criminal Tribunal on former Yugoslavia, the highest fixed-term sentence was 45 years.
175 years plus 10 years of persecution. That’s the first aspect and his own abuse is the second aspect of torture. And obviously what he expects there in the US, we know it. And it’s not just me, it’s my predecessors, it’s a host of human rights organisations. Even human rights organisations like Amnesty International that refuse to recognise that Julian Assange is a prisoner of conscience. Even they recognise that the prison conditions there (in the US) are inherently inhumane and that therefore his extradition would be unlawful. So that’s a clear bar to his extradition.
What shocks me so profoundly: I expected when I write to Sweden or to Britain I will get a response. The response I got: the Foreign Office says: ‘the UK does not participate in, or solicit or condone torture.’ However when the UK Parliament reports in 2018 ( the Intelligence and Security Committee) that the UK has been involved much more systematically in CIA torture than was thought beforehand, and asks for a Judicial Inquiry, which they are obliged to do under the Convention Against Torture, the need to investigate and prosecute, the Government refuses to do so.
So it’s not just about the case of Julian Assange. There seems to be a general policy of not investigating torture and ill-treatment that has been conducted and perpetrated on the orders of the government. They wrote in a letter to me in 2018: ‘We take allegations of torture very seriously and investigate allegations against UK personnel.’ But the UK government flatly refuses to even discuss torture findings of two independent medical doctors who are world renowned, who have no interest in losing their credibility. They don’t want to discuss this with me, they don’t want to investigate, they don’t even want to respond to me. The Foreign Office claims ‘journalism is not a crime’ and they have a high profile campaign for press freedom. Yet they detain a journalist, Europe’s most prominent political prisoner just a few miles from that conference and his name is not even mentioned in that conference.
And then the UK says to me in response to my press statement after my visit to Julian Assange, they say to the press the UK has a ‘working relationship with UN bodies and supports the important work of the Special Rapporteur on Torture’. Yet I am still waiting for their response. More than 100 days after I sent an urgent appeal to the UK government because I was afraid for Julian Assange’s life, 100 days later I am still waiting for them to even respond to my letter. How is that a close working relationship? Perhaps I should send them my address. Because they went to see the High Commissioner of Human Rights to complain about me, thinking that she is my boss. She isn’t, I am independent, I am appointed directly by the Human Rights Council. But the Ambassador in Geneva seems to have told her that she is not happy with the way I conduct my mandate in this case. Incidentally I heard they also told my employer in Glasgow that they were not too happy about how I conduct my mandate.
I refuse to be intimidated. I conduct my mandate that the UN has given to me according to the best of my knowledge and my judgement. It is a violation of my independence to try to circumvent official procedures and to try to undermine my credibility and standing with the UN and my employer and I will certainly not back down. I’m not fighting against the UK government and certainly not against the UK people. I am fighting for the UK people and the prohibition of torture that they and their country stands for. When the Foreign Office writes me ‘The UK is committed to the rule of law’ but no branch of government seems to see any problem with Assange’s most basic rights being violated, namely his right even to prepare his defence, then where is the credibility?
I say to the Foreign Office and I have said it before, it is high time to quit talking the talk and start walking the walk.
It is also high time for the UK people to take the democratic means at their disposal and to hold their current governments to account and to use their institutions to do so. We thought it was a good idea organise tomorrow an event at Chatham House, which is the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The event was booked and paid for I am told. But suddenly it was cancelled by Chatham House. And I thought isn’t that striking? In the year 2020 which marks the 100th Anniversary where the Chatham House on its website speaks of 100 years of ‘independent thinking,’ they’re afraid and they now have (inaudible)….have cold feet. Luckily the Front Line club has picked up the slack of independent thinking and they will have the event there tomorrow.
The Foreign Office, Chatham House, the BBC. It is more than 9 months that I am trying to have an interview with the BBC and to see how they disagree with my assessment. I proposed to have a HARDtalk interview with them. They feel it’s not newsworthy. As we have seen in a recent interview with Joe Corre by the BBC, they still adhere to the version and to the narrative that Julian Assange ‘evaded justice’. Some of you who follow me on twitter will have seen how I reacted to that. In 1940 Hannah Arendt was arrested by the Gestapo for anti-state propaganda. She was interned by the Vichy regime and then succeeded to escape to the US where she got asylum. Did she evade justice? Did Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty in 1956 when the Soviets invaded Hungary and he escaped to the US Embassy where he spent 15 years in hiding until his safe passage could finally be guaranteed. Did he evade justice? Did Fang Lizhi in 1989 who was at the top of China’s wanted list for interacting with the Tiananmen protests. He sought asylum in the US Embassy in Beijing. Did he evade justice? From the perspective of the China he did. I mention Moses Kushaba Mworeko from Uganda who sought and received asylum in the US in 2009 when his native Uganda debated passing a bill allowing the death penalty or life imprisonment for homosexuality. Did he evade justice?
Or even Najibullah. Not everybody may agree with him. He cooperated with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he was the last president. When the Mujahedin took over in 1992, he sought refuge in the UN Headquarters in Kabul where he stayed until 1996 when the Taliban pulled him out, tortured him and hung him from a lamp post in the streets for everybody to see. Do you think his hiding was evading justice?
So what’s the difference to Julian Assange? Who was seeking asylum in Ecuador from a judiciary that has proven for a decade that it is not pursuing the law but has pursued the freedom of the press. How is that different? Where we know if he gets extradited to the US he will be convicted for espionage and I will sentence him to life in prison in inhumane conditions. Is this evading justice?
How far have we sunk if we prosecute people that expose war crimes, for exposing war crimes? How far have we sunk when we no longer prosecute our own war criminals because we identify more with them than we identify with the people who actually expose these crimes? What does that tell about us and about our governments? How far have we sunk when we prosecute whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning first sentenced to 35 years in prison? Again compare to the war criminals in the Hague who were sentenced to 40 years for genocide. How far have we sunk when telling the truth becomes a crime? It’s urgent. I’m glad to see you here. But what hurts me are the empty seats.
It’s really urgent. We need to strengthen our voice. We have to wake people up