It’s a battle akin to David and Goliath with a twisted ending: the Americans, still claiming to be the global moralauthority, turned on the province of Hong Kong and demanded the extradition of Andrew Snowden. In response, Hong Kong gave them what is equivalent of the middle finger and let him board a plane to Russia. In this case, David didn’t win but he got away with it and survived with a few diplomatic (and possibly minor economic) bruises.
In another case, a whistleblower pleaded with the UK to let him seek asylum in Ecuador. Once again, the Americans insisted on his eventual extradition after facing trial in Sweden and in this case, David bent his knee and yielded. As a result, Julian Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London and has remained there for more than a year with no end in sight since the UK is unwilling to let him leave the country.
Why are the two stories so similar and yet ended so differently?
Admittedly, Julian Assange was the mouthpiece of the whistleblower Bradley Manning, whose excessive detention conditions in the US sparked worldwide concern (still think the US is the emblem of human rights?). Nonetheless, Assange is arguably viewed with greater hostility than Snowden by the White House, since the information he leaked on the internet supposedly “aided the enemy”, whereas Snowden’s actions will probably not be of great help to any terrorist organisations or states as it does not contain war logs or State Department cables. (This does not mean the prosecution would not try to make this accusation stick if the US does get its hands on him however.)
Most importantly, unlike the UK, Hong Kong asserted its beliefs in the freedom of speech and expression, partly because it feels like it may drown in the incoming tide of Chinese repression. If you read between the lines of its statement, the province declared to the world that it does not tolerate such prosecution and will not accept it from any authority that seeks to impose it. China will have taken note of that.
What did the UK have to gain from letting Assange go? Essentially, he had been accused of sexual assault and no matter whether people believe the charge was politically motivated, he needs to stand before a jury and prove his innocence. Letting him leave the country to flee those accusations would be irresponsible and immoral.
However, the real reason the UK is not willing to take a stance against the US is the close relationship it enjoys with it, from trade right down to sharing intelligence (see PRISM). And it is this dog-of-the-US syndrome, which has besmudged the human rights reputation over the years. Yet, as the hard power of Britain is decreasing andthat of soft power rising, more emphasis needs to be placed on the record of the country in standing up for those that dare shine a light into the forbidden darkness of state practice and reveal to the world that in a globalised world, no one is safe. And that is exactly what the whistleblowers have shown us, and why countries have to stand up for the freedom of speech and expression against a Goliath that has lost his right to police the world.