“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” under Article 14 under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, that does not apply to individuals who have committed “non-political crimes” or “acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”
National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is desperately working to find some country in the world that will grant him asylum. In an airport in Moscow now for over a week, multiple countries have responded to requests but no country has agreed to grant him asylum.
Bolivia and Venezuela have shown the most interest in considering an application. Ecuador has done a public about-face and decided it was a mistake to help Snowden. Russia considered giving him asylum but only if he told media organizations like The Guardian to stop publishing stories on documents he provided to them from the NSA. And countries in the European Union have faced pressure to consider his application after spying on EU diplomats was revealed by Der Spiegel but no European country appears to be interested in granting him asylum.
Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane was apparently diverted when Spain, France, Portugal and Italy decided to not give his plane permission to fly over their countries because they thought the plane might be carrying Snowden. The plane was diverted for refueling and landed in Vienna, Austria. When it landed, the plane was subjected to an inspection by Austrian authorities. This has deeply outraged Latin American countries and leaders have called an emergency meeting to stand up to what happened, as they suspect the United States was involved in creating a rumor that Bolivia might have been transporting Snowden.
In a private statement to an Icelandic committee that will certainly further complicate his effort to obtain asylum, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said “the Snowden case is something I consider to be misuse” of his right to digital access. This remark, according to The Guardian, was made just after Snowden formally submitted an application for asylum to Iceland.
Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the committee who was present at the meeting, asked Ban to clarify his comments on whistleblowers. He replied: “Access can be for the greater good, but sometimes it creates bigger problems through misuse by individuals.”
Jónsdóttir, who participated with WikiLeaks in 2010 at the time it published US state secrets leaked by the intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, said she was alarmed by Ban’s intervention in the Snowden controversy. “I see it as wrong for the secretary general of the United Nations to condemn Snowden personally in front of our foreign affairs committee. He seemed entirely unconcerned about the invasion of privacy by governments around the world, and only concerned about how whistleblowers are misusing the system.”
Most US media have covered Snowden’s effort to obtain asylum either in a juvenile manner where they talk about placing bets on what country will take him. They have suggested that countries like China, Russia, Ecuador, Venezuela or Bolivia — any country willing to stand up to the US — is intent to stick their finger in the eye of the US, as if there could be no legitimate reason or explanation for standing up to America. Commentators like The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank suggest Snowden, personally, is responsible for undermining his cause by seeking asylum and not returning to the United States (like Snowden is to blame for the media’s inability to focus on the content of his leaks instead of speculating about how he has become a traitor or spy).
Lost in all of this are basic considerations related to the principle or right of asylum, which has been widely recognized throughout the past decades.
What the US has openly admitted to doing by contacting any country that might be considering asylum for Snowden subverts the process. Every country considering his asylum already knows that by granting him asylum they would be doing something infuriating to the US. Therefore, calling countries that might give him asylum is not being done to make sure the US position is explicitly understood but also to deter countries from seriously considering his application.
Imagine if China was doing this to countries of which a dissident Uighur had applied for asylum. The US State Department would publicly express concern that he or she was not being treated “in accordance with international human rights obligations and commitments.”
A report by McClatchy, one of the few reports out there to give serious attention to Snowden’s legal situation, quoted Widney Brown, the senior director for international law and policy for Amnesty International. Brown condemned the US government for “heading off the asylum process even before countries get a chance to independently assess Snowden’s case.” She called it a “dangerous precedent for a process that’s designed to offer safe passage for people escaping persecution in their home countries.”
“It isn’t on the merits of the claim, but on the politics,” Brown said of the Snowden case, according to McClatchy. “That’s why we’re seeing countries saying, ‘Don’t bother us.’”
Decisions on asylum or extradition are always a mix of legal and political considerations, but what appears to be on full display here is how the US finds it fully acceptable to politicize the process to the point where all countries of the world would face the prospect of isolation if they granted Snowden asylum.
Michael Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International, has declared, “The US attempts to pressure governments to block Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum are deplorable.” And, “It is his unassailable right, enshrined in international law, to claim asylum and this should not be impeded.”
Amnesty International has labeled Snowden a whistleblower. It has called attention to the fact that senior US officials have “already condemned Snowden without a trial, labelling him both guilty and a traitor, raising serious questions as to whether he’d receive a fair trial.” They have suggested the fact that he is charged under the Espionage Act “could leave him with no provision to launch a public interest whistleblowing defense under US law and Bochenek said it “appears he is being charged by the US government primarily for revealing its—and other governments’—unlawful actions that violate human rights.”
The politicization of asylum is not limited to the US. When WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange sought asylum from Ecuador, the government of the United Kingdom actually sent a letter informing Ecuador threatening to arrest Assange in the “current premises” of the Ecuador embassy in London if they continued to use the “diplomatic premises” in a way “incompatible with the Vienna Convention and unsustainable.” The letter was aimed at intimidating Ecuador into not granting Assange asylum, which they eventually did.
Though stuck in limbo in Moscow as he waits for a country to decide to grant him asylum, “Mr. Snowden could ask Russia to issue him a refugee travel document under the UN convention on refugees,” according to Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, “an attorney who teaches immigration and asylum law at Cornell Law School.”
“He would qualify presumably under the ‘political opinion’ factor,” Mr. Yale-Loehr told the Wall Street Journal, “citing one of the five criteria a person can use to achieve refugee status under the treaty.”
Finally, the point must be emphasized: calling him a fugitive does not mean no country should consider his request for asylum. Plenty of asylum seekers are fugitives. That is why they are seeking asylum. In their home country, they are considered criminals or treated as if they have committed crimes when what they have done should be protected under the law and not something that spurs harsh punishment or zealous prosecution.
Any country has to determine if what Snowden did was criminal or a noble act of blowing the whistle on activity that was corrupt conduct in violation of rights or the law. They have to assess if widespread spying on people all over the world all supposedly to fight the “war on terrorism” is legitimate if it means the privacy of individuals are being violated because their data and information are being intercepted and collected. They have to consider the ramifications of a country that thinks it is permissible to engage in daily espionage against countries so they can get a leg up in diplomatic negotiations.
Of course, the US government is fearful of any country seriously examining what Snowden did, which is why they preemptively contacted any country that might dare to consider his request within the boundaries of international law.
And, to the extent that the US media persists in fostering a discussion about The Manhunt and how Snowden didn’t engage in civil disobedience properly cause he fled instead of focusing on his act and whether blowing the whistle is a serious crime, the media are doing a service for the US government. They are helping to generate the kind of political climate the US government desires. They are allowing the politicization of asylum seeking to become even more severe, when geopolitics shouldn’t be entirely subverting the process, while at the same time neglecting to inform the public about the actual real and important legal issues around asylum seeking.