ACCEPTING a prestigious award from the American legal fraternity, Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, QC, has harangued the United States over its attempts to haul WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange before the courts.
Mr Robertson warned that the US risked its reputation as a “bastion of free speech” if it continued to pursue Assange, “a citizen of a friendly nation”.
During his speech for the New York Bar Association award, presented for distinction in international law and affairs, Mr Robertson cautioned the US legal fraternity against “aiming the blunderbuss of its 1917 Espionage Act, death penalty and all, at a publisher who is a citizen of a friendly nation”.
His speech came as it was reported that US military authorities were struggling to prove a link between the US army private suspected of passing on secret government files and Assange.
Citing unnamed sources, NBC television said investigators had concluded that Private Bradley Manning illegally leaked tens of thousands of secret documents but had failed to produce solid evidence that he gave the files to Assange or had direct contact with him.
Mr Robertson said the US risked irrevocable damage to its reputation if it pursued Assange.
He described himself as a “flag-waver for the First Amendment”, defending journalists and editors in Asia and Africa while insisting that he understood the embarrassment and annoyance of US diplomats over WikiLeaks.
But he pointed out the irony that the cables “actually showed the American diplomats in a favourable light”.
“The best secret of all is the extent to which the United States is trusted with the leadership over the world’s most difficult problems . . . how to deal with the mullahs, a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Rather than shooting the messenger, US politicians and pundits should support the principle that citizens everywhere have a democratic right to know what their government does in their name.”
Mr Robertson said that civil servants bore sole responsibility for protecting properly classified information and outsiders who received or communicated it should not be prosecuted unless they had used fraud or bribery.
“National security exceptions should be precisely defined to protect the identity of any sources at risk of reprisals but must allow the revelation of human rights violations,” he said.
“For example, the public has a right to know the extent to which a brutal war fought in its name is killing innocent civilians through illegal targeting decisions.”
The Australian QC, who will defend the WikiLeaks founder at his extradition hearings in London next month, spoke about his early interests in Aboriginal rights as a student in Sydney in the 1960s and his later work battling the death penalty in Africa and the Caribbean.
In his wide-ranging talk, Mr Robertson paid tribute to the Obama administration for its “greater appreciation of the rule of law and the need for an international criminal justice system”.
He said judicial independence was now the most urgent legal issue not only in Africa and Asia but especially in Russia and former communist nations where “judges are still paid to do what politicians want”.
He said “independent regional or international tribunals” were needed to protect — and police — multinational corporations.
A great legal failure had been the inability “to make transnational corporations — some of them wealthier than countries with millions of people — the subject of effective legal regulation”.