Thinking the leaks

Wikileaks has shaken diplomats’ seats one more time. The so-called ‘Cablegate’ has disclosed 250,000 classified communications between the Department of State in Washington DC and US embassies all over the world. It is still too early to assess the actual implications of this extraordinary collection of leaks. For the time being, the Obama administration has not wasted time: “This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community”, Ms. Clinton said the very same day of the revelation of the documents in The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País:

Ms. Clinton may be right in her assessment. As said, it is still too soon to discern the real changes, for better or for worse, that the major leak ever in history will bring about. Thus far, Wikileaks has shed light over certain issues of major importance. For instance, Wikileaks has confirmed American leaders’ fears because of their dependency vis-à-vis China. We do also know that the US pressured Spanish authorities to prevent the prosecution of US officials in Spain in ‘Couso’ (extrajudicial killing in Iraq) and ‘Guantánamo’ cases; we have discovered, by the way, that several Spanish politicians and prosecutors assisted Americans in this strategy. Furthermore, Clinton’s State Department ordered its diplomats to spy UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, and other UN civil servants. Two more findings: Russia is presented as a ‘mafia state‘ and Mohamed VI, one of US and Europe’s best friend in the Global South, is considered to be at the top of the structural corruption in Morocco. I must admit that the honesty of American delegates abroad is noteworthy. Overall, as Neal Ascherson notes in a recent article in The Observer: “Their view of their host countries is not rosy. You begin to absorb their vision, in which America is the only adult in a world of grasping, corrupt, unreliable teenagers who cannot be abandoned to their own weakness”.

The media has already highlighted these and other findings. I hereby want to share two mere points, the first related to the origin of the news, and the second one to the watchdogs.

1.  No matter what, President Obama stands for President of the United States of America.

Wikileaks has opened up the secret box of American diplomacy and has spread out its dirtiness; not all its dirtiness (who knows how much is still covered up?), but definitely a good deal of it.  In this context, my guess is that US citizens may face a dilemma. On the one hand, they can back Ms. Clinton in her attempt to shoot the messenger pretending that the revelation of her own secrets is a threat to the whole of the international community.  On the other hand, however, the American public could also take the opportunity to reflect critically about their own Government’s foreign policy. If anything, Wikileaks has shown that Obama’s administration fundamentally follows a realist understanding of the American position in the planet. Obama may even be progressive at the core of his soul, but at the moment, above anything else, he is the President of the United States of America, and this means that he does what other Presidents (such as Nixon, Reagan of Bush Jr.) did before him. We’d better stumble into reality as soon as possible.

By the way, I am not in the US right now, but I seriously doubt that Americans have opted for the second alternative. Anyway, we´ll always have Noam Chomsky, for whom Wikileaks has uncovered the “profound hatred for democracy on the part of (US) political leadership”.

2. If we have the right to know, somebody must speak the truth, and somebody else must defend the former and the latter.

Some human rights groups (among others, Amnesty International) have criticized Wikileaks because it did not take the necessary precautionary measures to protect vulnerable civilians and human rights defenders, who may be victims in case of retaliation of any kind. This is a very important issue that must not be underestimated. Wikileaks, media and information providers must take serious note in future actions of disclosure.

Having said this, thought, I think human rights groups themselves ought to think a bit more carefully about the challenges, risks and opportunities presented by Wikileaks-kind of innovations. Wikileaks is suffering the effects of an angry diplomatic establishment, but it is still quite likely that Wikileaks (or anybody else) will uncover more classified documents tomorrow or the day after. This is one of the unintended consequences of globalisation, we could say.

In September 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that “the State’s actions should be governed by the principles of disclosure and transparency in public administration that enable all persons subject to its jurisdiction to exercise the democratic control of those actions, and so that they can question, investigate and consider whether public functions are being performed adequately. Access to State-held information of public interest can permit participation in public administration through the social control that can be exercised through such access”. Therefore, the Court says, “democratic control by society, through public opinion, fosters transparency in State activities and promotes the accountability of State officials in relation to their public activities” (Claude Reyes et al. v. Chile, Judgment of 19 September 2006, para. 86 and 87).

The principles set up by the Inter-American Court and confirmed by other international bodies must inspire human rights advocates’ analysis of the ‘Cablegate’. The leading London-based group in defense of freedom of expression Article XIX has drawn a good starting point in defense of the right to information and the consequent duty of the State to guarantee citizens’ access to relevant information in international affairs (See also). Similarly, based on the information derived from the diplomatic cables, the recently appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, has urged the US Government to investigate and prosecute all cases of torture during the Bush administration.

We very well know by now that rights and freedoms don´t have the ability to defend themselves. If we don´t respect the right to access to information, rights and freedoms will also lose the chance of being defended by somebody else.

Koldo Casla


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