The world is an awful, terrible place. But sometimes it gives us a nugget so glorious that it really has to be savoured and appreciated. One such nugget is today’s news item that Ecuador had made a ‘sovereign decision’ to restrict the Internet access of Julian Assange, for many years a guest in its London embassy (Guardian and BBC reports here; our previous coverage of various legal issues regarding Assange here). Note the reason Ecuador gave for restricting Assange’s Internet access (which I imagine they are paying for, in any event): respect for the principle of non-intervention. Here’s the Ecuadorian government’s official communique (via Twitter):
In recent weeks, WikiLeaks has published a wealth of documents, impacting on the U.S. election campaign. This decision was taken exclusively by that organization.
The Government of Ecuador respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. It does not interfere in external electoral processes, nor does it favor any particular candidate.
Accordingly, Ecuador has exercised its sovereign right to temporarily restrict access to some of its private communications network within its Embassy in the United Kingdom. This temporary restriction does not prevent the WikiLeaks organization from carrying out its journalistic activities.
Just consider, for a moment, how Assange, as a champion of the freedom of speech on the Internet, has found himself in cahoots with (likely) Russia – by any measure not the freest of societies – in actively influencing the forthcoming American elections, and how he is maintaining this activity from UK sovereign soil, protected by Ecuador’s unlawful grant of asylum. And then ponder the delicious irony of a state like Ecuador which, on the one hand, violated the principle of non-intervention vis-a-vis the UK by granting asylum to a fugitive from criminal justice, only to then invoke that very same principle vis-a-vis the United States in order to effectively limit Assange’s freedom of expression. Remarkable, isn’t it?
On a purely legal level, it is particularly noteworthy that a state has essentially expressed its opinio juris to the effect that the customary principle of non-intervention requires it to prevent a private actor operating from a place within its jurisdiction from interfering with the electoral process of a third state by leaking the content of a campaign official’s private emails. I, at least, am not aware that the principle of non-intervention has ever been invoked by an (arguably) intervening state against itself in this particular way, and indeed as part of justifying the interference with an individual’s human rights. But this is an excellent example of how an old legal principle can keep evolving in different circumstances.