The government of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa gave Julia Gillard's Australian government a lesson in dignity on August 16 when, facing British threats to raid its London embassy, it granted asylum to WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange.
Ironically, Ecuador's decision to grant asylum to the Australian citizen who founded the whistleblowing website came on the same day the Australian Senate voted to further punish those seeking asylum in this country.
Adding to the dark irony, WikiLeaks has exposed war crimes committed by the United States in countries such as Afghanistan — from where many of those who seek asylum in Australia have fled.
The diplomatic stand-off between Ecuador and Britain is continuing. Just hours before granting Assange asylum, Ecuador said Britain had threatened, in writing, to revoke the diplomatic standing of Ecuador's embassy and send in police to arrest Assange.
Dozens of police had gathered outside the embassy in the early morning of August 16 — raising fears of an assault on the building to capture Assange.
Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy in London on August 19. With speeches from other supporters including Tariq Ali.
Despite being granted asylum, Assange remained holed up in the embassy. Britain insisted that if Assange set foot outside the embassy, he would be arrested. Britain claimed it was obliged to do this due to the court order upholding Assange's extradition to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual assault.
However, it is now clear for anyone with eyes to see that the targeting of Assange is about much bigger issues than the fact Sweden wishes to extradite him for questioning.
No nation has ever threaten an unprecedented violation of international law and diplomatic norms, with a move that would amount to a virtual declaration of war, so one man can face allegations for which he has not even been charged.
This is especially the case when Ecuador — and Assange — have repeatedly said Swedish authorities can question Assange in London. This makes a lie of the claims by many media commentators that Assange is seeking to avoid these allegations.
These leaks were not just embarrassing to the US. They detailed serious crimes — such as the infamous “Collateral Murder” video WikiLeaks released in 2010 showing US soldiers in Iraq gunning down civilians, including Reuters journalists.
Assange and his supporters fear he will be sent from Sweden to the US. In February, WikiLeaks published leaked emails from private intelligence company Stratfor that revealed a grand jury had drawn up secret charges against Assange.
The alleged leaker of the material to WikiLeaks, US soldier Bradley Manning, is facing a court martial and potential death penalty over the leaks.
The Australian government, as well as many other opponents of WikiLeaks, have publicly denied Assange faces any threat from the US for his role in publishing leaked cables.
However, The Age reported on August 18 that Australian diplomatic documents it had received showed “Australian diplomats have no doubt the United States is still gunning for Julian Assange”.
The Age said: “The Australian embassy in Washington has been tracking a US espionage investigation targeting the WikiLeaks publisher for more than 18 months.
“The declassified diplomatic cables, released under freedom of information laws, show Australia's diplomatic service takes seriously the likelihood that Assange will eventually be extradited to the US on charges arising from WikiLeaks obtaining leaked US military and diplomatic documents.”
The article noted: “This view is at odds with foreign minister Bob Carr's repeated dismissal of such a prospect.”
In other words, the Australian government is lying through its teeth about the threat facing Assange in a bid to justify abandoning an Australian citizen to please its powerful US ally.
The article said the Australian embassy in Washington reported in February that "the US investigation into possible criminal conduct by Mr Assange has been ongoing for more than a year".
It also said that “briefings for Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Senator Carr suggest the Australian government has no in-principle objection to Assange's extradition”.
Abandoned by his own government, Assange has now been offered protection from a government that has shown itself on several occasions to be willing to stand up to the powerful in the interests of the powerless.
Correa was first elected president in 2006 on a platform of starting a “citizen's revolution” to tackle poverty and empower the poor.
His government oversaw the drawing up of a new progressive constitution that was adopted by popular vote in 2008. As well as guaranteeing the right of the poor to basic services such as health care and education, it also limits the ability of corporate interests to control the media.
His government has increased taxes on big corporations and raised social spending to the benefit of the nation’s poor majority.
Strongly opposed by Ecuador's oligarchy, which controls much of the media, economy and state structures, Correa enjoys widespread popular support, with recent polls giving him an approval rating of more than 70%.
An attempted coup against Correa in 2010 was defeated, with supporters mobilising on the streets in his defence.
Correa's government is part of the left-wing bloc of nations organised into the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), an eight-nation group that also includes Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. It promotes regional integration to liberate Latin America from US domination.
Among other moves to strengthen Ecuadorean sovereignty, the Correa government has shut down a US military base inside Ecuador. Correa famously told US authorities they could keep their airbase "if Ecuador were allowed to have one of its own in Florida".
Correa's government is willing to stand up to powerful interests. Gillard's government is the exact opposite. In fact, Gillard rose to be prime minister in an internal Labor Party coup to placate powerful mining company interests.
The difference in approach is stark. A political outsider, Correa came to power on the back of growing popular rebellion.
To win progressive change in Australia, we need to build extra-parliamentary movements to challenge the widespread injustices fostered by the political elites — of which the treatment of Assange is just one.