The public forum “Breaking Australia's silence: WikiLeaks and freedom” took place on March 16 at the Sydney Town Hall. More than 2000 people attended. The event was staged by the Sydney Peace Foundation, Amnesty, Stop the War Coalition, and supported by the City of Sydney.
It featured speeches by John Pilger, Andrew Wilkie MP (the only serving Western intelligence officer to expose the truth about the Iraq invasion) and human rights lawyer Julian Burnside QC.
Burnsides’s speech to the meeting appears below. The video recording of the event also appears below.
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The field has been fairly well ploughed. It’s a little bit difficult to know what I can add.
I want to go through very briefly what the main players have done in this exercise and what’s wrong with it — starting with Julian Assange.
Well, he published leaked material, plainly enough. The most dramatic publication was his exposure of murder in Baghdad. It is no great surprise that the Americans were embarrassed by that.
Of course, publishing that material was not an offence against any Australian law. And I think its not an offence against any American laws that I’m aware of.
But it did embarrass the American government. I guess that is a sort of unwritten crime, but not one of which you can be convicted. And I suppose the best thing you can say to America is: “If you don’t want to be embarrassed, stop doing embarrassing things.”
So, did Assange do anything wrong? Well, the answer is no.
And interestingly, given that what he has done is to publish the material that was leaked by someone else, you’ve got to look around and admit that Rupert Murdoch has done exactly the same thing, reprinting exactly the same material.
But I don’t see Rupert Murdoch being attacked by the American government or the Australian government.
Now, what’s the USA done? Well, the USA branded [Assange] a terrorist. They got Visa, and Mastercard and Paypal to cut off the source of funds to WikiLeaks.
They arrested the whistleblower, Bradley Manning, who arguably may have committed offences — if in fact he is the person who leaked the material — and that’s very far from clear.
But having arrested him, that was not enough. They then threw him in a brig where he’s been held for more than eight months, and for most of that time held naked and kept in the dark, and they’ve been preventing him from having adequate access to his lawyers. (However, most people wouldn’t think it’s a terrible thing to be free of lawyers, but there are times when they are useful.)
What have they done wrong? Well, they are up to their old tricks, denying basic human rights at every turn. I mean, Bradley Manning might just as well be in Guantanamo Bay [considering] the treatment that he is receiving.
And this is a country which was founded on the principles and ideals of the rule of law. The USA has really disgraced itself many times in the last few decades, but especially in its treatment of Bradley Manning and in its attacks on Julian Assange.
Australia, well what have we done? The first we did, from day one, was to denounce [Assange]. The prime minister denounced him as a traitor. They promised that they would help the USA bring him to justice. They threatened to cancel his passport.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Well I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it: we bloody well betrayed one of our own citizens.
From the time of [Thomas] Hobbes and [John] Locke and the English Civil War, it has been plainly understood that in Western democracies that basic transaction between citizen and state is that citizens cede some of their autonomy and hand it to the state. They owe loyalty to the state and the state owes them protection — which is the very reason that we have states.
Forgive me for being a lawyer just for a moment, but in the famous trial after the second world war of Lord Haw-Haw, the legal argument turned on this principle: that a person who gets the protection of the state by holding a passport owes them a duty of loyalty. Treason, and the state’s obligation to protect are opposite sides of the same coin.
What Julia Gillard did was the converse of treason. She betrayed an Australian citizen. And of course it’s not the first time we’ve done it.
It was done to David Hicks. It was done to Mamdouh Habib. But then lets think for a moment.
How many people in this hall turned out in numbers like this to support David Hicks for the first five years of his detention. I suspect many of you did. But I suspect also that many did not.
And across the community, let us not forget — for the first five years of David Hicks’ incarceration the public at large were unconcerned. Even though we knew what was going on. Even though we knew that he was being tortured in Guantanamo.
Did you ever see a rally in support of Mamdouh Habib while he was being held by Americans in Guantanamo Bay? The answer is no. Let’s not be too bold when we criticize the current government for betraying Julian Assange. Lets not forget that we, as a people, betrayed Hicks and Habib.
And governments learn from that. They know that they will get away with it if we let them get away with it.
That’s why I’m so encouraged to see the response to the treatment of Julian Assange. Perhaps we have learned something from what happened to David and to Mamdouh.
Its an interesting thing … it would be fascinating if they do try to recover the proceeds from the book [by David Hicks] as the proceeds of crime. I’m thinking that it may not be a bad idea to counterclaim for damages for the way the government betrayed him and allowed him to suffer.
And what about Sweden? Sweden has this on again and off again investigation. All very peculiar. They didn’t charge [Assange]. When he asked permission for him to leave the country they said: “Yes, you can go”. But then, when the Americans had a hissy-fit, the Swedes suddenly jumped into action and decided to try and extradite him.
Only when American was embarrassed did Sweden decide it was important to extradite him, in order to question him and see if there was an offence disclosed.
This issue has actually divided the ranks to some extent because those who are concerned about sexual crimes will understandably think: “Well, if Assange is guilty of these things, then maybe, well maybe … ”, it’s not too sure exactly what.
Let me remind you of what was said recently by Naomi Wolf in an article. She has for more than 20 years worked in investigating sexual crimes around the world.
And she wrote this: “Never in 23 years in reporting on and supporting victims of sexual assault around the world have I ever heard of a case of a man sought by two nations, and held in solitary confinement without bail, in advance of being questioned for any alleged rape — even the most brutal or easily proven.
“In terms of a case involving the kinds of ambiguities and complexities of the alleged victims complaints, [in Assange’s case] sex that began consensually but allegedly became non-consensual when dispute arose about the condom, please find me anywhere in the world another man in prison today without bail on charges of anything comparable.
She goes on: “Keep Assange in prison without bail until he is questioned, by all means, if we are suddenly in a real feminist, world-wide epiphany about the seriousness of the issue of sex crime.
“But Interpol, Britain and Sweden must, if they are not to be guilty of hateful manipulation of a serious women's issue for cynical political purposes, imprison as well — at once — the hundreds of thousands of men in Britain, Sweden and around the world world who are accused.”
Anyone who thinks the extradition is actually about alleged sexual crimes has been living in sad isolation for too long.
And what about all of us? What have we done? You came here tonight, and that’s pretty good, it’s a good start. But is it enough?
Of course it’s not enough. Of course it is not enough. Now I got a ring this morning from Julian’s mother, Christine. And she is very keen that I ask all of you to contact your local member — state and federal — contact all of them and ask them individually, what is their position on the current treatment of Julian Assange?
Ask them what is their position on our government’s standing relation to Julian Assange? Make sure and force them into the open. Make sure they are forced to face the realities of of democracy in circumstances where the people are disturbed by what the government is doing in our name.
And remember, this is not a partisan issue. Senator [Judith] Troth, a Liberal from Queensland, and Senator [George] Brandis, a person with whom I rarely agree, have both actually done some fairly handy things in connection with this.
You may find yourself with strange bedfellows in attacking the present government for their indifference to the fate of Assange — but no matter, treat it as an interesting experience.
I wanted to pick on something that John [Pilger] mentioned about the sort of laws that might be passed and the leaked document that showed what is the greatest threat to our democracy, and journalists headed the list — a badge of honour I agree.
But there was an interesting piece of legislation in Britain a few years ago. It dealt with people who were non-citizens in Britain, who were accepted as refugees but were thought to be risks, insofar as engagement in terrorist activity was concerned.
What the legislation did was to allow the government to lock these people up indefinitely for the protection of the community, even though they were not guilty of any offence.
Incidentally, it’s exactly what we do to asylum seekers who are not even thought to be guilty of any offence, but I’ll let that pass.
The validity of that law went to the House of Lords, and the House of Lords in a devastating eight to one judgement dealt with the fact that the law had the effect of jailing innocent people, denying them their rights in circumstances where they had done nothing at all wrong.
And they acknowledged that it was done in order, ostensibly, to make the country safer from terrorism. And Lord Hoffman’s speech ended up with the devastating observation that the safety of the nation is less endangered by terrorism suspects than it is by laws like that.
It brought to mind an observation by Wendell Phillips in 1852 — in a speech which is only remembered for this one fragment — he said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Power, he said, is ever stealing from the many to the few. And the democrat in office soon hardens to a despot.
There are words that are as true now as they were then.
One of the things that you must do when you leave this hall tonight is vow to hold the government to account.
Hold them to account for their denial of the basic obligations that they owe to Julian Assange. Hold them to account for their basic denial of the principles of free speech, especially political free speech.
Hold them to account for their apparent ignorance of the notion of the presumption of innocence.
You have to hold them to account and remember: we can, if we try hard enough and long enough reclaim our democracy. We will not yield to the people in Canberra.
And as you do it, remember the words of Lincoln: you have in this country, as in America, a government of the people, by the people and for the people — and that’s us.
It will not be quick. It will not come easily. It is not enough to sign a petition, or write one letter, or ring up Alan Jones just once. It will take more than a night. It will take more than a week.
Because after all, these people are playing our old habits and if they can get away with them, the media cycle moves to other things. If they can get away with it because we get tired, they will continue to behave in exactly the same ways.
And next time, it won’t be Julian Assange’s turn. It will be Andrew Wilkie’s turn. It will be John Pilger’s, or maybe Mary [Kostakidis’s] or one of you.
But you can bet on it, if we don’t stand up for this now, it will be one of you eventually.
And like the other speakers on the panel tonight, I do know that these things can get quite tiring. These things can be fairly exhausting because as Andrew has told you when you take on the government you expect them to play dirty tricks and treat you harshly.
But let me tell you one piece of advice. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.