The United Nations has responded to the ongoing WikiLeaks kerfuffle, urging member states to – ahem – remember the basic human right to access information held by governments and other public authorities.
In issuing a joint statement on Wikileaks with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression does not mention the US or other involved countries by name. But he does mention "the release of diplomatic cables by the organization Wikileaks" – a reference to the classified US State Department cables released late last month – and clearly, he's concerned that in responding to the leaks, the US and other countries will step on established international legal principles – if they haven't already.
The UN statement was promptly tweeted by WikiLeaks itself.
"The right to access information held by public authorities is a fundamental human right subject to a strict regime of exceptions," the statement reads. "The right to access to information protects the right of every person to access public information and to know what governments are doing on their behalf. It is a right that has received particular attention from the international community, given its importance to the consolidation, functioning and preservation of democratic regimes.
"Without the protection of this right, it is impossible for citizens to know the truth, demand accountability and fully exercise their right to political participation."
Any exceptions to this basic right, the statement continues, should be precisely defined – and should not be misused. "The right of access to information should be subject to a narrowly tailored system of exceptions to protect overriding public and private interests such as national security and the rights and security of other persons," it says.
"Secrecy laws should define national security precisely and indicate clearly the criteria which should be used in determining whether or not information can be declared secret. Exceptions to access to information on national security or other grounds should apply only where there is a risk of substantial harm to the protected interest and where that harm is greater than the overall public interest in having access to the information."
The White House dubbed the leaked diplomatic cables "stolen and classified documents."
"These cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world," the White House said in a statement the day the cables were released. "To be clear – such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government."
The UN statement does not mention Julian Assange by name, and it doesn't specifically discuss the role WikiLeaks played in leaking the cables. But it does seek to protect the human rights of "journalists, media workers and civil society representatives" and other individuals "who receive and disseminate classified information because they believe it is in the public interest" as well as "government whistleblowers."
"Any attempt to impose subsequent liability on those who disseminate classified information should be grounded in previously established laws enforced by impartial and independent legal systems with full respect for due process guarantees, including the right to appeal," the statement continues.
US Congressional representative Peter King, due to head the House Intelligence Committee when the new Congress convenes next year, and Senate Intelligence Committee heads Dianne Feinstein and Kit Bond have asked that Julian Assange be charged under the 1917 US Espionage Act, and Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joseph Lieberman wants to know why Assange, who is not a US citizen, hasn't already been charged with treason.
"We can go back to the earlier dump of classified documents mostly related to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan that occurred in July, and to me that was a violation of the Espionage Act as well," he has said.
The UN statement also seems to address speculation that the US government has put pressure on the likes of Amazon, PayPal, and MasterCard to prevent WikiLeaks from using its services. "Direct or indirect government interference in or pressure exerted upon any expression or information transmitted through any means of oral, written, artistic, visual or electronic communication must be prohibited by law when it is aimed at influencing content."
And it would seem to answer concerns that the Swedish rape allegations against Assange are part of an effort to crack down on WikiLeaks: "Illegitimate interference includes politically motivated legal cases brought against journalists and independent media, and blocking of websites and web domains on political grounds."
It even decries public officials who make calls for "illegitimate retributive action."
Meanwhile, the AP reports that the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture in Geneva is investigating a complaint that the Army private suspected of sharing classified documents with WikiLeaks has been mistreated while in custody. Pfc. Bradley Manning is confined to a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia, and vistors claim he stays in a cell for at least 23 hours a day. ®