Saturday, January 18, 2014

How the Left’s Defence of Assange Promotes Rape Myths and Misogyny (and what this says about the left)

- Lisbeth Latham

Trigger Warning: This article will discuss at length how publications have trivialised rape and tried to undermine survivors. It contains references to apologist material.

The question of how to respond to the allegations of rape and sexual assault against Julian Assange has been controversial amongst left-wing and progressive people. Most of Australia’s far-left would argue that they have adopted a nuanced and sophisticated approach which combines standing up for the rights of women and defending the work of Wikileaks from interference from the US government and its allies. A closer reading of Green Left Weekly and Socialist Alternative’s publications Red Flag and Socialist Alternative however reveals a different picture. Whilst they may argue that you “need to take the allegations seriously”[1], the articles they publish fail to support the rights of two the Swedish women “A” and “W” who have brought allegations. Instead, they fall into a range of problematic approaches that tend to trivialise and minimise the allegations against Assange, and, importantly, do nothing to combat the widespread misogyny articulated by Assange’s supporters, whilst placing the most emphasis on defending Assange’s reputation and interests. This failure is important, as these far-left organisations (through the articles published in their papers and on their websites) are helping, rather than combating rape culture, and as a result are creating an environment that is damaging to all survivors of rape and abuse.

A major problem with both Green Left and Socialist Alternative’s coverage of the case against Assange is that many of the articles do not mention, or gloss over, the allegations against Assange; or immediately go from talking about taking the allegations seriously to discussing how the state has a long history of misusing rape allegations[2]. In the first article in Socialist Alternative on the case in early December 2010, Ben Hillier stated that Assange would be “unlikely to receive a fair trial” in Sweden”[3].  This tends to erase the fact that the extradition proceedings initiated by Sweden are part of an investigation of rape, and instead create the impression that these proceedings are part of a formal process to extradite Assange to the US to face espionage charges. While this possibility is a core argument mobilised to oppose any extradition, there is a significant difference between acknowledging that the US government, and many of its allies, don’t like Wikileaks or Julian Assange – that these governments view the allegations against Assange as being useful in undermining him – versus proving that in the current process he is ”targeted because of his political actions, not his personal affairs”[4], or that the extradition to Sweden would “let the US get hold of Assange”[5].


Trivialising Allegations
Green Left has run three articles that state that what was has been alleged did not constitute rape. One of these entitled “Don’t let lying dogs sleep over Assange, Ecuador”, a speech by the Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen, was prefaced by a statement critical of McQueen’s assertion stating:

Green Left notes that, while most of McQueen’s speech is an entirely justifiable defence of Assange and WikiLeaks, McQueen makes an argument in the case of the allegations of rape against Assange that Green Left strongly rejects. Green Left believes allegations of rape are very serious and should not be dismissed or minimised as simply “misconduct” -- as McQueen does. At the same time, we reject the hypocritical use of these allegations by the US government and its allies as a smokescreen to attack Assange and WikiLeaks”[6].

The disclaimer also stated that the speech did not reflect Green Left’s views and we feel it is important to address this matter among Wikileaks’ supporters[7]. However, Green Left, while also joining in criticisms of British Respect Party MP George Galloway for making similar comments, has not offered similar disclaimers accompanying two other articles that made the same claim that were published prior to McQueen’s speech; nor has the paper been critical of the fact that Assange’s defence team unsuccessfully argued that the Swedish charges did not constitute rape under British law as part of his unsuccessful appeal against extradition[8]. 


 Denying Rape (proceed with caution- this is particularly awful)
Green Left has run several articles that state that the sex between Assange and the two Swedish women was consensual:
“Both complainants admit consenting to sex and that consent to sex was not removed at any stage. The allegation made is that Mr Assange did not immediately inform the complainants that a condom had split or that he was not wearing a condom”[9] 
And:
“Both the women involved said they had consented to have sex. On the facts alleged, no crime would have been committed in Britain”[10].

By arguing that the sex was consensual, the authors argue either that what happened was not rape, or that Sweden has brought ridiculous allegations against Assange, a common argument by Assange’s supporters seeking to paint Assange as the victim of Sweden’s “overly harsh” rape laws. The reality is that no-one has argued that no consensual sex occurred between Assange and the two women – what has been argued that some of Assange’s actions were non-consensual and constituted rape. This should not be too difficult to understand, unless you are of the incorrect view that once a person consents to sex once, you don’t need seek consent in the future.

It is important to understand that while Sweden’s laws around rape are different to those of Britain or Australia, they are not stricter, indeed unlike in Australia or Britain, where consent is central to the definition of rape. In Sweden the key question is the use of force, or threat of the use force[11].

Distorting the facts of the case
There are number of key facts around the case that are frequently misrepresented by Assange’s supporters. Beyond the question of the nature of the charges, US intentions and how these relate, and which decisions were made to prosecute Assange and seek his extradition – are the questions of how the investigation was run, including whether the prosecutors sought to interview Assange prior to him leaving Sweden and motivations behind the bringing of the charges. Writing in June 2012, the editors of Green Left Weekly state,
“When the allegations first surfaced, Swedish prosecutors dismissed the case and repeatedly refused Assange’s attempts to meet with them for an interview. Months later, a different, politically-appointed Swedish prosecutor reopened the case and applied for Assange’s extradition from Britain”[12]. This argument fits with the narrative put forward on websites such as Wikileaks Citizens Alliance Australia and Justice4Assange. However, it doesn’t bear up very well when compared with the timeline of events and the evidence presented at the various court hearings in Britain and the findings in those hearings.
August 20: an arrest warrant was issued for Assange.

August 21: warrant withdrawn, senior Stockholm prosecutor Eva Finne saying “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape,” but prosecutors indicated they would continue to investigate lesser chargers that did not warrant arrest.

August 31: prosecutors interviewed Assange in Stockholm formally informing him of the allegations against him.

September 1: Swedish Director of Public Prosecution, Marianne Ny (who is also head of the department which oversees sex crimes), announced that she was reopening the rape investigation “There is reason to believe that a crime has been committed, considering information available at present, my judgement is that the classification of the crime is rape”[13]. 

The argument that prosecutors did not try to interview Assange until after he left Sweden, originated with his Swedish lawyer Bjorn Hurtig, who stated this in his witness statement to the February 2011 extradition hearing in the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court. Hurtig had also provided this information to expert witnesses that Assange’s defence team called during the hearing. However, under cross-examination Hurtig was forced to admit the following timeline:
September 21 or 22: Ny had contacted him to arrange a follow up interview with Assange.

September 27 9.11 am: Ny contacted Hurtig, who indicated he had not been able to Assange. Ny indicated that she would let him know shortly what action they would take given the inability to arrange an interview. Sometime that day Assange reportedly leaves Sweden.

Sometime between September 27 and September 30: Ny informed Hurtig that she intended to arrest Assange.

Ny continues to attempt to interview Assange, including on October 6th as he was scheduled to holding a public meeting in Sweden. However, this meeting never occurred and the interview was unable to occur[14].

October 18: Assange was informed that his request for residency had been denied.
November 18: the Stockholm District Court Approved “approves a request to detain Mr Assange for questioning on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. Sweden’s Director of Prosecution Marianne Ny says he has not been available for questioning”.

November 20: Swedish police issue an international arrest warrant for Mr Assange via Interpol[15].

Ny has been subject to a range of inconsistent attacks regarding her motivations in deciding to initiate a rape investigation against Assange. While both Green Left and Socialist Alternative argue that the investigation it is part of a politically motivated agenda against Assange, a range of pro-Assange websites including Wikileaks Australian Citizens Alliance and Justice4Assange have, drawing on the “expert testimony” of Brita Sundberg-Weitman, a retired Swedish Judge, have additionally argued that Ny has brought the charges because she is a radical feminist who “regards the prosecution of men, even without sufficient evidence, as in the public interest”[16].

Sundberg-Weitman’s assertion that Ny is a radical feminist is based on comments quoted in a 2001 report for the Act to Protect Women. These are:
“Women who are subject to repeated violence often feel ashamed. They think that they themselves are to blame for what happens. This makes the kicks and blows logical – the victim develops a strategy to explain what she has to go through”[17], 
and
“If the police and prosecutor get enough evidence during the initial investigation, the matter goes to prosecution. Legal proceedings place the responsibility on the persons who resort to violence. Marianne Ny is of the opinion that such proceedings have a beneficial effect in protecting women, even in cases where perpetrators are prosecuted but not convicted”[18].

Sundberg-Weitman interpreted these comments to mean that Ny is “biased against men and takes for granted that everyone prosecuted is guilty ... She is so preoccupied with the situation of battered and raped women that she has lost balance”[19]. Even under cross examination, when it was put to Sundberg-Weitman that Ny’s statements could be taken as meaning “there is a public interest in prosecuting, where evidence justifies prosecution, even if the case results in an acquittal”[20], Sundberg-Weitman rejected this as a possible interpretation .

It is important to remember that in Sweden, like in Australia, there are real problems with low reporting rates of rape and real problems with attrition rates with rape cases being dropped by police and prosecutors prior to cases going to court. The approach advocated by Ny, who has also been involved in policy discussions to strengthen Sweden’s rape laws, would help to address this problem.

Failure to confront misogyny of Assange Defence campaign
Assange’s case has become a cause celebre not just with the far-left but also with significant layers of Men’s Rights Groups. Indeed, the official Justice4Assange site has an entire section on “Gender Politics” or more precisely, how Sweden is a place where crazy feminists have taken over. The introduction to the section states “Gender politics in Sweden has also been decisive in shaping the Swedish Sexual Offences legislation that criminalises conduct that is considered legal in the UK as long as it is consensual (which is the case in the alleged conduct involving Julian Assange)”[21]. 

Assange also very early in the process argued that feminism was a problem. In a December 2010 interview he told The Australian that “Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism” and that he had fallen into a “hornet’s nest of revolutionary feminism”[22]. This denigrates the experiences of both “A” and “W”, and promotes a wide range of inconsistent rape apologism and rape myths. However, Green Left, while asserting that allegations of rape need to be taken seriously and that attempts to trivialise rape need to be debated amongst Assange supporters, has not published any articles that sort to seriously challenge the use of such examining this ugly aspect of the Assange’s support base - beyond saying

“This type of argument hurts the struggle against sexual assault,  where women often face a difficult battle to receive justice.

“Allegations of sexual assault and rape are a serious matter. What is concerning about Assange’s case is
that the serious problems of sexual assault and rape, which do not receive the attention they deserve, are being used in an attempt to discredit an organisation that is a threat to powerful interests.

“The singling out of Assange for severe treatment (such as the initial denial of bail in Britain and ongoing extradition attempts for a man not even charged with a crime), amounts to dangerous abuse and trivialisation of a serious issue”[23].

In addition they have published articles critical of feminists who have raised concerns about the trivialisation of rape by Assange’s supporters, accusing them of “not having a nuanced analysis”[24].

Socialist Alternative has not been as coy on this question. In a November 2012 article, Louise O’Shea argues that:
“Phoney concern about women’s oppression has been instrumental in giving various policies of the ruling class legitimacy over the last decade or more. In addition to helping win support for the invasion of Afghanistan, some feminists have contributed to anti-Muslim racism by advocating a ban on Islamic dress have refused to support the rights of fly-in-fly-out mining workers on the basis that they can be sexist and have opposed defending Julian Assange against the US government because he has been accused of rape. The mindset that much of the left has, that any attention to “women’s issues” must by definition be a good thing, is wholly inappropriate for the times”[25].

A central element in the logic that is applied to justify the downplaying of rape allegations against Assange is the way in which a hypothetical conspiracy between the Swedish and US governments is treated as fact. It is unquestionably the case that the US government, and many of its allies have condemned Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and have sought to undermine Wikileaks. It also undoubtedly the case that these governments view the allegations against Assange as being useful in undermining both him and Wikileaks, however, this doesn’t mean that it can be said that “Whether or not the claims are true, he is being targeted because of his political actions, not his personal affairs”[26], or extradition to Sweden would “let the US get hold of
Assange”[27].

Calling for no trial to occur
Although both Socialist Alternative and Green Left, have published articles that argued “that it’s not possible to know what occurred in Sweden, and the need to take allegations seriously”, Green Left and Socialist Alternative[28] have run articles calling for the Australian government to push for Assange to be brought home to Australia or be freed, which would make justice for both “A” and “W”, impossible – but then again I don’t think they ever cared about that.

These statements are not just an attack on “A” and “W”, but on all survivors – it sends a message that survivors cannot expect the far-left to consistently stand up for survivors, and if your abuser is a member of the left you can expect the left to mobilise rape myths against you and apologise for the perpetrator “for the good of the movement”, Anyone who is serious about supporting the rights of women needs to support survivors. This involves accepting survivors’ stories and combating the rape apologism and victim blaming that legitimises and normalises sexual violence. If we are to achieve a world where rape is viewed as abhorrent we need to fight rape apologism wherever it is found. 


_______________________________________________


Notes

1 Pemberton, A. ‘Anti-WikiLeaks campaign undermines anti-rape campaigns’, Green Left Weekly, 24 Aug. 2012, para. 14, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/51992>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014.
2 Ausburn, K. ‘Why feminists and the left must defend Julian Assange’, Green Left Weekly, 12 Jan. 2011, para. 18, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/46421>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014
3 Hillier, B. ‘Truth is a crime in an empire of lies’, Socialist Alternative, 3 Dec. 2010, para. 20, <http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=4148:wikileaks-truth-is-a-crime-in-an-empire-of-lies&Itemid=543>, accessed 7 Jan. 2014.
4 Hillier, para. 20
5 Green Left Weekly, ‘Assange is right to seek asylum’, Green Left Weekly, 23 Jun. 2012, para. 4,  <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/51428>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014.
6 McQueen, H. ‘Humphrey McQueen: Don’t let lying dogs sleep over Assange, Ecuador‘, Green Left Weekly, 22 Aug. 2012, para. 2, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/51975>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014..
7 McQueen, para. 5.
8 Pemberton, A. ‘Anti-WikiLeaks campaign undermines anti-rape campaigns’, Green Left Weekly, 24 Aug. 2012, para. 12, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/51992>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014.
Wikileaks, ‘WikiLeaks: Assange’s detention unfair, dehumanising’, Green Left Weekly, 20 Jun. 2011, para. 9, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/47960>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014.
Pilger, J. ‘John Pilger: ‘Getting’ Assange and the smearing a revolution’, Green Left Weekly, 11 Oct. 2011, para. 3, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/49029>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014.
9 Wikileaks, para. 6.
10 Pilger, para. 3.
11 Amnesty International, Case Closed: Rape and Human Rights in the Nordic Countries – Summary Report (2010)   <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT77/001/2010/en/5ba7f635-f2c3-4b50-86ea-e6c3428cf179/act770012010eng.pdf> , 9, accessed 2 Sept. 2012.
12 Green Left Weekly, para. 7.
13 BBC News, ‘Timeline: sexual allegations against Assange in Sweden’, BBC, (16 Aug. 2012) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11949341>, accessed 8 Jam 2014.
14 Riddle, H. The Judicial Authority in Sweden v. Julian Paul Assange, (City of Westminster Magistrates Court, 2011) <www.judiciary.gov.uk%2FResources%2FJCO%2FDocuments%2FJudgments%2Fjud-aut-sweden-v-assange-judgment.pdf&ei=iS7OUripDNHYkgWO04HIAg&usg=AFQjCNEkM4qYA0FOEwSC4QWBdbn_Aw4zUQ&bvm=bv.59026428,d.dGI>, 7-8, accessed on 3 Sept. 2012.
15 BBC NEWS.
16 Riddle, 2.
17 Sundberg-Weitman, B. Exhibit to Expert Report of Brita Sundberg-
Weitman
, <http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&ved=0CC8QFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.howardkennedyfsi.com%2Fcms%2Fdocuments%2FExpertOpinionofBritaSundbergWeitmanExhibitBSW1.pdf&ei=uzLOUpSKL8X5kgW2k4DADQ&usg=AFQjCNHY3DgYQCywePwlkgo-NIeLVkXerg&bvm=bv.59026428,d.dGI>, 7, accessed on 7 Jan. 2014.
18 Sundberg-Weitman, 8.
19 Riddle, 2.
20 Riddle, 2-3.
21 Julian Assange Defence Fund. ‘Gender Politics’, Justice4Assange [webpage], (n.d.) <http://justice4assange.com/Gender-Politics.html> para. 1, accessed 7 Jan. 2014.
22 Colvin, M. ‘Wikileaks Founder Baffled by Sex Assault Claims’,
Australian, 27 Dec. 2010, para. 16, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/wikileaks/wikileaks-founder-baffled-by-sex-assault-claims/story-fn775xjq-1225976459286>, accessed 8 Jan. 2014.
23 Pemberton, A. ‘Assange: ‘Gillard must bring me home’, Green Left Weekly, 13 Feb. 2011, paras. 17-19, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/46706>, accessed 10 Jan. 2014.
24 Ausburn, 2.
25  O’Shea, L. ‘Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and the political right’, Socialist Alternative, 22 November, 2013, para. 26, <http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=7577%3Ajill-meagher-reclaim-the-night-and-the-political-right&Itemid=542>, accessed 6 Jan. 2014.
26 Hillier, 20.
27 Green Left Weekly, para. 4.
28 Pemberton, A. ‘Assange: ‘Gillard must bring me home’, Green Left Weekly, 13 Feb. 2011, <https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/46706>, accessed 10 Jan. 2014.
Bolger, C. ‘The battle over Wikileaks has only just begun’, Socialist Alternative, 23 Dec. 2010, para. 15, <http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=4129:the-battle-over-wikileaks-has-only-just-begun&Itemid=543>, accessed 10 Jan. 2014.


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