U.K. MP Jeremy Corbyn on Freeing Julian Assange, the Working Class, Brazil, Peru & Ending Ukraine War
Written by GRB on 21/01/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with British MP and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. He’s in the United States to take part in the Belmarsh Tribunal today in Washington, D.C. The tribunal is focused on the imprisonment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s been languishing for close to four years in the harsh Belmarsh prison in London while appealing extradition to the United States. If convicted, Assange could face up to 175 years in jail in the United States for publishing documents that exposed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other participants in today’s Belmarsh Tribunal include Noam Chomsky, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg and Assange’s father, John Shipton. Democracy Now! will be live-streaming the tribunal at 2 p.m. Eastern at democracynow.org. I’ll be co-chairing the tribunal.
The Belmarsh Tribunal is being held as pressure is growing on President Biden to drop the charges against Assange. Five major newspapers that collaborated with WikiLeaks over the publication of the leaked documents recently appealed to the Biden administration to drop the charges. In an open letter, The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel joined together to say “Publishing is not a crime.”
British MP Jeremy Corbyn joins us now in Washington, D.C.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
JEREMY CORBYN: A pleasure to be here, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk — you’ve come from across the pond. You’ve come from Britain, where Julian Assange is imprisoned. He’s being held there because the U.S. has demanded his extradition, and it looks like they’re in the final stages of making that decision. Can you talk about why you feel it was important to make this trip and why Julian Assange’s case is so important?
JEREMY CORBYN: Well, Julian spent his life as a journalist investigating uncomfortable truths and ensuring that they are published. And he’s the one that exposed the war crimes that went on in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he did it because he believes that we all have a right to know what our forces and our governments do, at the end of the day, in our name.
He was then sought by the United States under the Espionage Act. He took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he was for several years living there, not a great place to be living — no criticism of the Ecuadorian president at the time. And then the government changed in Ecuador, and he was then removed from the embassy, arrested and placed in prison, eventually.
And he’s now been four years, as you quite rightly say, in Belmarsh prison fighting the extradition request from the United States. And his conditions in Belmarsh are awful. It is a maximum-security prison where he has to share his cell and his life with people who are convicted of very, very serious crimes indeed.
We are standing up for the right to know. We’re standing up for journalism. And the Belmarsh Tribunal today here in Washington is a plea to people, particularly in the United States, who believe in free speech, who believe in the right to know, who believe that journalists should be protected in going about their work, and to drop the appeal against the decision made by a British court that he was not fit to travel and, therefore, should not be allowed to go to the United States. And we are making that plea. We ask thinking people in the United States, thinking people who value the freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to speak out now in support of Julian Assange. And that’s what we’ll be doing this afternoon here in Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: You met with Bernie Sanders yesterday, the independent Vermont senator, who just gave a major address on the state of the working class in the United States. Did you raise the issue of Julian Assange? And if you can share his position and what you talked about?
JEREMY CORBYN: The meeting with Senator Sanders was entirely about industrial issues and class politics, and we had a good discussion on all of that. And we discussed the wave of strikes in the United Kingdom, which you mentioned in your excellent news report, and, of course, the wave of strikes in France, and the need for the left across the world to be stronger in its anti-austerity politics, not just to manage our economies but to change them.
AMY GOODMAN: And how are you coordinating, as you are a part of Progressive International, and so is Senator Sanders? How do you coordinate, strengthen that response?
JEREMY CORBYN: Progressive International is a coming together of progressive forces around the world. We are working very closely with people in Brazil, in Colombia, in Chile, in Peru, in Bolivia and all over Latin America, as well as many European groups and people in other parts of the world.
The falling living standards in many countries as a result of 12 years of austerity in Britain have finally met with big industrial actions. And February the 1st in Britain will be a day of big industrial action. We’re coordinating our message across the world, because, essentially, the economic thinking that is now being played out in Davos, the economic thinking that comes from the — excuse me — International Monetary Fund and World Bank is exactly the same, that the way out of this crisis is to lower the tax, as it’s called, “burden” on the richest people in order to create trickle-down economics. It simply doesn’t work. What we’re facing is a plethora of food banks in Britain — there are now more food banks than there are branches of McDonald’s — and increasing levels of poverty.
And you know what? In all of the demonstrations of rail workers, mail workers, communications workers of all sorts, civil servants and teachers, many other groups joined those demonstrations representing poverty, homelessness, migrants and refugees. This is a campaign for social justice and decency, and we’re, of course, coordinating it across national borders. Economic thinking doesn’t stop at the national borders.
AMY GOODMAN: We mentioned at the top of our news headlines this union — anti-union bill that’s been proposed by Conservatives that would allow the state to break strikes of public sector workers by ensuring they maintain so-called minimum services. Workers violating the bill could lose their jobs. Their unions could be sued. Can you talk about what you’re doing in Britain? You’re the former Labour leader. You’re still a member of the Parliament.
JEREMY CORBYN: Yes, this piece of legislation has been produced in panic by the government, who are giving, if the legislation is passed, the secretary of state powers to decide what are minimal service levels that must be guaranteed legally on railways, mail, teaching and so on, all those industries where the strike action is being taken. It has gone through the first stage in Parliament, where it was given its introductory vote, what’s called the second reading vote in Britain, and it goes to the detailed committee stage on the 30th of January in Parliament.
We will oppose the bill because it’s an infringement of the right to strike. We believe it’s contrary to the provisions of the International Labor Organization Convention. And what it will do is put union funds and union officials and union leaders in legal jeopardy, unless they obey an order to maintain a minimal level of service. And it will lead to the, ultimately, legal action being taken against them.
We’ve been here before in Britain, when, many years ago, the Conservative government of Ted Heath in the 1970s tried exactly the same thing — indeed, imprisoned trade unionists. And those trade unionists were released, because there was massive industrial action in their support. We’re heading down exactly the same road at the present time.
The government could solve this very quickly. It could simply accept that those who work in all those key services have been impoverished by frozen or falling wages over the past 12 years. Poverty does stalk the land. And there are more billionaires than ever in Britain. There’s more inequality than almost ever before in Britain.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your —
JEREMY CORBYN: And there’s demand to change direction.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your response to the current Labour leader — you’re the former Labour leader — Sir Keir Starmer’s firing a junior shadow transport minister who joined striking rail workers on a picket line?
JEREMY CORBYN: He was completely wrong to do that. The principle of being a Labour MP is in the name. You are there to represent, yes, the Labour Party, but also the wider labor movement. What Sam Tarry was doing — I was there with him — was, on a picket line with some telecom workers outside BT Tower in London, showing our solidarity with those workers in a pay claim for them with British Telecom. And do you know what? They won that pay claim, and the strike was entirely successful. Sam and I were there and proud to be in support of them. And I just think the idea you would sanction Labour members of Parliament for supporting trade unions, who themselves are affiliated to and help to fund the Labour Party, is, I’m sorry to say, completely wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Jeremy Corbyn, what about the war in Ukraine? What about those pushing for negotiation, for diplomacy, often criticized for being Russian puppets, yet deeply concerned about this, what could be a global conflagration, or even what’s happening just alone to the Ukrainians? You have a thousand religious leaders in the United States calling for a ceasefire. Bishop Barber, we played a portion of his speech where he said the war is immoral, it is illegal. He fiercely criticized Putin, but said negotiation has to be the way. Your response?
JEREMY CORBYN: I welcome the call by a thousand religious leaders and many, many other people. And I’ve had a number of very interesting discussions all around Washington yesterday on the possibilities of promoting the idea of an internationally organized ceasefire and negotiations.
I absolutely and totally condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the brutality that goes with it. And the destruction of life in Ukraine, the loss of lives of conscripted Russian soldiers is awful and appalling. This war could drag on and on and on. More and more arms could be thrown into the conflict. More and more people would die, and you would end up with destruction all around.
Surely to goodness, here we are in the 21st century watching in real time a conflict going on. Can we not do better than that, call a halt to the conflict, have negotiations and agree on a viable future? If Russia and the Ukraine can negotiate, albeit under the auspices in that occasion of Turkey, to ensure that grain supplies flowed out of Russia and the Ukraine through the Black Sea, which are very important to feed people in the Middle East and North Africa, then they can come together on lots of other issues itself. And so, can we stop having armchair generals in all of our studios discussing how this could happen, that could happen, this could go on and that could go on, and this could be destroyed? Instead, raise the voice for peace, and raise the voice for hopes and justice.
I support the Russian peace campaigners. I support the religious leaders that are calling for a more rational process. And I call upon the leaders of the countries that are closely involved in this to heed those calls and find a way out of it. All wars end with some kind of peace conference. Let’s jump to that stage.
AMY GOODMAN: I also want to quickly ask you about Brazil. You were there when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated Jair Bolsonaro, observing the election. Earlier this week, Brazil’s prosecutor general charged 39 Bolsonaro supporters in connection with the January 8th attack on the Brazilian Supreme Court, Congress, presidential palace in the capital Brasília. They’re charged with staging a coup and other crimes. The Brazilian President Lula condemned the attempt to overthrow his government by what he called “fanatical fascists.” This is what he said.
PRESIDENT LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] All those people who did this will be found and punished. They will realize that democracy guarantees the right to freedom and free speech, but it also demands that people respect the institutions created to strengthen democracy. And these people, these vandals, what could we say? They’re fanatical Nazis, fanatical fascists. They did what has never been done in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Jeremy Corbyn, to what happened in Brazil, the significance, right up through— that was January 8th — January 6th, what happened in the United States, the insurrection?
JEREMY CORBYN: I was shocked and appalled when I saw the news coming through that straight after President Lula da Silva had been inaugurated as president, the Bolsonaro supporters tried to invade the presidential offices and federal government offices and try and stage a coup against an elected president. The response of the majority of people in Brazil was to condemn it, and hundreds and thousands of people immediately went on demonstrations in support of President Lula.
We had a whiff of that on Election Day itself. I was in São Paulo, and we were watching the electoral process there. And within the city of São Paulo, it was fine, but we were hearing reports from the rural areas and other parts of Brazil, particularly the northeast, which is a very strongly Lula-supporting area, that there were attempts to prevent people getting to the polling stations, to impede their progress. And we were very well aware of the strength of Bolsonaro’s supporters in trying to damage the democratic process. Lula won the election, and there are no complaints about the electoral process at all that I have heard.
And we can see now what the right in Brazil are doing against Lula. The death of those poor people who were defending their land against illegal logging and ranchers in the Amazon region is just a whiff of the problems that that government faces.
But I think we have to say “thank you” to Lula for winning the election, “thank you” to the landless people, the homeless people, the favela dwellers, and all the people that have done so badly out of inequality in Brazil — because of inequality in Brazil, for supporting Lula. And we need to support him to carry through that program of social and economic and environmental justice.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Peru. We have about 30 seconds, but if you can respond to the imprisonment and the ouster, the coup against the leftist President Pedro Castillo.
JEREMY CORBYN: President Castillo was elected the president of Peru as somebody to help bring about proper equality of life and justice within Peru. He has now been removed by a coup. He should be freed from prison. He has no business being in prison at all. And we should support those people that are demonstrating for justice and equality in Peru. The events in the center of Peru, in Lima, with the killing of so many people, are absolutely appalling and disgusting. I discussed this with many people yesterday. We need urgent observation delegations to go to Peru to report, as you are on your excellent channel, the truth of what is happening there. The people of Peru deserve democracy, not autocracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeremy Corbyn, I want to thank you for being with us, member of the British Parliament, served as Labour Party leader from 2015 to 2020. He is taking part in today’s Belmarsh Tribunal in Washington, D.C., along with Noam Chomsky; Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Assange [sic]; Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation — Daniel Ellsberg, and more. I’ll be co-chairing that panel. On democracynow.org, we’ll be live-streaming the tribunal from the National Press Club at 2 p.m. Eastern. Anyone can join.
Coming up, we go to Atlanta, where the battle over a new police training center has turned deadly as police fatally shot a forest defender protesting plans to build what’s known as “Cop City.” Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Long Time Gone” by Crosby, Stills & Nash. David Crosby has died at the age of 81. To see our interview with him, go to democracynow.org.