Of pebbles and boulders: Edward Snowden, the leaks, and his search for an asylum*

ImageI was writing a health policy paper when his face was flashed on the television screen. My initial reaction upon seeing and hearing Edward Snowden’s name in a late-night newscast was shock, then amazement. I logged into my Twitter account right away to find out if his name was included in the roster of trending topics worldwide. The topics mentioned some bizarre combination of words and quirky hashtags (as it appeared to me) but no Snowden. I lingered for a while and tried to reload the page. There really was no “#Snowden”. My thought bubbles went out of my mind one after another. This is an issue of international concern. This should have stirred discussions. He just startled a hornet’s nest. Isn’t that a big deal? Why the silence? Curious, I signed out from the site and instead collected much information I can get about the man-of-the-hour.

A perusal of brief biographical accounts made me think of Snowden as a pebble flinging itself at a gargantuan boulder. Some admired Snowden’s courage to reveal details of the classified United States (US) and British government surveillance programs while some were skeptical of his sudden emergence. There were too many controversies to contain, too many questions waiting for an answer. To begin with, how do we refer to Snowden? Fugitive? Whistleblower? Leaker? Defender of the Oppressed? Even the seasoned journalists are having a hard time doing so. The civil libertarians hail him as hero while the irate American Congress calls him a traitor.

He is undeniably a courageous, bespectacled man who reminds me of “the Boy who Lived”. Sadly, we are not at Hogwarts and he is not a wizard who can recite an enchantment for his own redemption. If he really were one, there would be no need to evade from the Avada Kedavra of the US government. In a situation where staying within the ambit of the US is a matter of living or dying, an instinctive reaction of a person charged under espionage laws is to run for his dear life. And run he did. After flying in from Hong Kong, Snowden went to Moscow, Russia on 23 June and is currently staying at the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport.

With the US revoking his passport and placing him on no-fly lists, Snowden is left with no State to fall back on. As he is now rendered stateless, his search for an asylum begins.
 
Stateless, powerless

On 1 July, Snowden applied for asylum in 21 countries. Most of his requests were rejected, if not ignored, and some were accepted. Venezuela and Nicaragua are believed to be the first offers of asylum that Snowden has received. Referring to the US, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro reportedly stated that “[a]s head of state, the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela decided to offer humanitarian asylum to the young American Edward Snowden so that he can live (without)…persecution from the empire”. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua also claimed with boldness that they hold “the sovereign right to help a person who felt remorse after finding out how the United States was using technology to spy on the whole world, and especially its European allies”.

With few countries already expressing support to his request, a problem is yet to be solved. The possibilities of blocking Snowden’s passage to Latin America are not far-fetched as the US, along with her allies, is committed to overcome efforts of his imminent transfer to his new refuge. Denial of access to territorial airspace is much probable. It can be remembered that France, Portugal, Spain and Italy denied airspace access to the airplane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales because of unfounded suspicions that Snowden was on board. Certainly, Snowden’s sojourn should he be transferred to his asylum will never be a stroll-in-the-park.

The right to seek and enjoy an asylum

The Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. Though this salient provision of the UDHR is as clear as crystal, a prevailing custom in international law apparently prevents one from asserting this right.

A number of countries where Snowden applied for an asylum (such as the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Poland, and Norway) rejected his request as their respective domestic law requires an asylum seeker to be in the country’s territory for him or her to apply. The applications for asylum to these countries must be made within the country’s borders and not abroad. It follows then that granting Snowden’s request can run contrary to their public policy and pose detriment to their interests.

This practice is problematic as it bars the asylum seekers to be refugees of a certain State solely because of their failure to apply asylum within the receiving country. More so, it purposely snatches them a meaningful opportunity to pursue their petitions. The problem becomes much evident when certain circumstances thwart the refugees’ exit to their homeland and efforts are being done, either covertly or deliberately, to make such exit impossible. By and large, these make exercising their right to seek an asylum surreal, if not illusory.

Inasmuch as laws can intentionally prevent one from seeking for an asylum (i.e. by stipulating a set of minimum requirements), social and political forces can make or break an asylum petition. For instance, the increased xenophobic attitudes in some countries are deemed responsible for expanding the grounds for denying asylum to refugees. Even the actions of a sovereign State or other entities can spell success or failure to an asylum petition. By pressuring and providing economic sanctions to a prospective receiving State, and bringing into fore some alliances, a powerful State can effortlessly control the rules of the game.

Fighting against a boulder

Amidst debates on whether or not his revelations make this world a less safe place to live, Snowden does not find any regret from his actions and remains unbowed in his convictions. As he confesses: “That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets”. Indeed, it has been costly. Staying at the Sheremetyevo Airport’s transit area has been the prize of violating domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring. Searching for a refuge has been the repercussion of informing the public that they are under surveillance all day and night. Living as a fugitive has been the consequence of fighting against a boulder.

As a basic right, the right to an asylum is ought to be enjoyed by everyone. It should not be restricted to anyone simply because of political reasons. Though Snowden himself was declared stateless and there might be a grave abuse of discretion in his part, this right still belongs to him. Needless to say, however, the US will incessantly work to protect what she deems are her interests. She will not stop until the culprit is caught and, by all means, she will put the shackles to the rightful one.

I am hoping that the pebble will stand firm in his ground until the end.

References

 

*This article was published at ‘A Different View’, the official online blog of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), on 23 July 2013. To read the other articles written by my colleagues, just click this link: http://iapss.org/index.php/publications/blog-a-different-view/articles

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