On June 23, 2013, Edward Snowden boarded a plane from Hong Kong — where he had fled from his home and life in Hawaii — to Moscow. Moscow was not his intended destination, but rather a stop in transit to another country — maybe Iceland, maybe Ecuador — where Snowden planned on seeking political refuge.
U.S. officials were disappointed when Hong Kong authorities failed to heed their requests to stop Snowden from leaving the island. To remedy this, they revoked his U.S. passport. By the time Snowden landed, he lacked a valid travel document and found himself stuck in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned against letting Snowden leave on another flight and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to extradite the National Security Agency whistleblower and leaker of classified materials back to the United States.
“I would urge them to live by the standards of the law because that’s in the interests of everybody,” Kerry told reporters.
Russia did not extradite him, and Snowden has yet to board another plane for Iceland, Ecuador or anywhere. After 39 days stuck in an airport terminal, Snowden accepted asylum in Russia, which he has maintained was not his intent.
“Although I am convicted of nothing, [the U.S. government] has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person,” he said in a statement through WikiLeaks. “Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum.”
Political refugee or common criminal?
On March 26, several Snowden supporters delivered petitions to the U.S. Department of Justice and State Department. The petition to the Justice Department called on Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama to “make an unequivocal public commitment not to interfere with the travels or political asylum process of Edward Snowden. The U.S. government must not engage in abduction or any other form of foul play against Mr. Snowden.”
The petition to the State Department called on Kerry to restore Snowden’s passport so he can seek asylum, which supporters say is his right under international law.
The petition to Kerry reads, “Your revocation of Mr. Snowden’s passport contradicts the words of many U.S. leaders who have often criticized other government for violating the principle of freedom to travel.”
“He has the indisputable right to seek asylum under international law,” Ray McGovern, a former CIA intelligence analyst of 27 years who delivered the petitions, told MintPress News.
Snowden, he says, took an oath “to defend the Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic.” Though the former NSA contractor broke federal laws, McGovern will not be deterred in his support of Snowden, who believed the agency was breaking the law.
“That oath supersedes any minor contract the purpose of which is to protect national security, not to protect crimes against our Constitution,” McGovern said. “So it was a no-brainer for Edward Snowden.”
University of Michigan Law School professor James Hathaway, a leading authority on international refugee law, agreed that it made sense for Putin to grant Snowden asylum, but mostly because the U.S. has not made it clear what penalty would await Snowden should he be returned. A treason conviction could mean the death penalty, a fate from which one can seek refuge.
“The U.S. has been unwilling to make clear how he would be prosecuted for what he had done,” Hathaway told MintPress. “So, understandably, other countries would be nervous that they would be dumping him into a system that might be unfair.”
International refugee law
McGovern presented the petitions along with Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent-turned whistleblower on the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures, and Norman Solomon, founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy whose RootsAction.org sponsored the petitions.
The international law that McGovern and others cite starts with the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was approved at a special conference of the United Nations in 1951 and includes the addition of the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. To date, 147 countries, including the United States and Russia, have signed on and agreed to their tenets.
While the convention was written in response to the atrocities of World War II, various states have used the text as a motivation — and sometimes as pretext — for resettling nationals from other nations, usually ones that don’t share political beliefs. The U.S. accepts tens of thousands of refugees each year, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an “independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.”
During the Cold War and up to the fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the vast majority of refugees accepted by the U.S. came from Soviet bloc countries and Southeast Asia, where Cold War proxy battles such as the Vietnam War were occurring. In 2012, far fewer came from Europe, with more than 70 percent of refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Bhutan and Iraq.
However, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Russian citizens now globally comprise the second largest group of asylum-seekers after Syria, which is in the midst of a brutal civil war. The greatest share of Russians leaving the Russian Federation find refuge in the European Union.
Asylum and travel
Among other requirements, the convention states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Snowden supporters argue that as a whistleblower, Snowden is a political refugee protected under the convention. But the Justice Department says he is a criminal who broke federal law when he leaked classified documents, which would make him ineligible for refugee status under the convention.
However, Hathaway, the law professor, said that doesn’t really matter when it comes to Snowden’s passport.
“Traditionally, a state can simply decide whether to issue someone a passport,” he said. “That’s solely their decision and no one could say anything.”
Hathaway further explained that nations are obliged to offer their citizens “freedom of movement,” but that only means they have the right to leave.
“He has already left his country of citizenship,” Hathaway said. “So, there’s a question of whether the U.N. would even agree that there was any sort of violation in not revalidating his passport now.”
Hathaway also expressed concern that Snowden might actually be giving up his refugee status, since Russia would no longer have an obligation to provide protection.
“You can’t say both ‘my nation is too dangerous and is persecuting’ and ‘by the way, I would like them to issue me a passport,’” he said. “A passport is a document that says to the world that the United States, in this case, is your protectorate.”
According to Hathaway, international law only goes so far in protecting asylum-seekers, and Snowden doesn’t actually have the right to go to another country. But what if he still wanted to seek asylum in Iceland or Ecuador? Hathaway said, “Too bad.”
“The rules of the game are that once you request a country to recognize your refugee status, no other country owes you any duty of protection unless you can show that, in this case, Russia breached its duties under the convention,” he said.
One of those duties is to provide Snowden with a travel document themselves, unless they believe there is a security concern, though it remains unclear if they have done so. Additionally, other nations could provide Snowden with a travel document to their own territory, but the incident regarding the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales suggests it may be nearly impossible for Snowden to leave Russia.
Shortly after Snowden found himself in the Moscow airport, Morales was visiting Russia on official business. After he departed, his plane was forced to land in Vienna because France, Spain and Portugal all refused to let it through their airspace due to suspicions that Snowden was on board.
McGovern argued that Snowden ended up in Russia in the end because Putin adhered to international law, but also because of “strong-arm tactics” used by the U.S.
“When Putin decided to adhere to his request, he took the high road,” McGovern said. “Putin was an intelligence officer. He knows what it’s like to have leakers, right? The last thing in the world Putin would have wanted to do is hold up as an example someone who could do this kind of stuff and get away with it.”
McGovern added that having Secretary of State Kerry continue to demand that Russia turn Snowden over didn’t help matters. “You could see Putin sitting around saying, ‘Who is this guy to say I must do anything?’”