By Richard Falk
The post below is a major revision of another piece on the Snowden Affair that was published in AlJazeera English recently. I have dwelled on the pursuit of Snowden because it raises such vital issues of principle, but also because so much of the public discourse has proceeded on a mistaken understanding of the applicable international law. Beyond the legal guidelines on extradition and asylum that are applicable, there are considerations of world order: protecting dissent and pluralism in a global setting in which the principal political actors are sovereign states that increasingly rely on secrecy and security rationales to constrain democratic open spaces.
What Snowden did was to expose this dynamic of constraint in relation to secret surveillance programs administered by private, for profit, contractors. Also exposed was the ‘Global Big Brother’ implications of extending surveillance to foreign societies and their governments. It is these questions that should receive our attention, and the Hollywood circus chase of Edward Snowden should cease for humanitarian and political reasons.
I find the discourse surrounding the Snowden Affair bewildering. The latest reports suggest that the United States is using maximum political leverage, including coercive diplomacy, to discourage small Latin American countries from granting asylum to Edward Snowden. It is also complaining that Russia is giving Snowden ‘a propaganda platform’ and expressing its ‘disappointment’ with China/Hong Kong for its earlier refusal to expel Snowden back to the United States to face charges once his passport was cancelled.
This anger is misdirected. Taking the overall situation into account, whatever anger has been generated by the Snowden Affair, should be directed at the United States for expecting other governments under the circumstances to transfer custody over Snowden. From almost every angle of relevant law, morality, and politics the human rights case for protecting Snowden against the long arm of American criminal law is overwhelming. Anyone who commits nonviolent ‘political crimes’ should almost always be entitled to be protected, and should certainly not be compelled to hole up in an airport transit lounge for weeks of anguishing suspense while governments sort out the interplay between dealing justly with Snowden and not upsetting the diplomatic applecart.
The persisting official U.S. approach was concisely conveyed by an American embassy official in Moscow to a Human Rights Watch representative who then was apparently asked to relay it to Snowden at his airport press conference held a few days ago: “U.S. authorities do not consider him to be a human rights defender or a whistleblower. He broke the law and he has to be held accountable.” Yes, Snowden broke American law, but he did it to reveal improprieties in the American surveillance programs that raised serious questions of the Constitutional rights of citizens, as well as the overseas legitimate concerns of foreign governments.
President Obama made an enigmatic statement to the press about the pursuit of Snowden: “We’re following all the appropriate legal channels and working with various other countries to make sure the rule of law is observed.” If read as I would interpret the applicable rule of law, the United States should abandon its efforts to gain custody as Snowden’s alleged crimes are ‘political offenses.’ Obviously, Obama has a different understanding.
Russia did its part to create legal confusion when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, told the world media that Moscow was refusing to comply with the American request to turn Snowden over because Russia had no extradition treaty with the United States, but such an assertion overlooks the political offense exception to extradition, which should certainly be applied here.
It has become increasingly evident even to American public opinion that a twisted logic has gripped Washington in this case. What is more, the underlying U.S. assumptions have been partially accepted by many governments throughout the world who should know better, namely that Snowden should not be the benefit of sanctuary in the face of this all out effort by the United States to prosecute him criminally.
There are no applicable extradition treaties that bind the governments to turn Snowden over for prosecution to the United States in the countries where he has so far been present, and even if such a treaty did bind China or Russia, it should not be of help to Washington. Remember the elaborate inquiry into whether the Spanish extradition request in 1998 so as to prosecute the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, should be honored led to an elaborate set of legal inquiries in Britain where he was detained; he was finally sent home from London to Chile on the grounds that his medical condition made him unfit to stand trial in Spain.
It is standard practice for international law to allow governments to refuse a request for extradition in the event that the accusation involves a political crime. It is true that the definition of a political crime is unsettled. It is widely understood that violent and heinous behavior involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, terrorism, and maybe hate speech, are not considered to be ‘political crimes.’ The rationale for this exception to transnational criminal law enforceable is humane and in keeping with a pluralist world of sovereign states.
As with any protective policy, there may be a cost, but the democratic ethos is in favor of incurring such costs in the interest of curtailing abuses of state power. Such costs seem worth bearing, especially in the United States, considering several recent trends: projection of global power in a unique manner; imposing a regime of homeland security on the American people that has been shown vulnerable to abuse; a decline in the checks and balance mechanisms that offer the citizenry protection against autocratic tendencies of government, especially under wartime conditions; privatization of the security and paramilitary functions of the state. Snowden’s acts should be seen as swimming against this authoritarian tide.
It is a matter of upholding the quality of world order, as well as supporting an international legal order that makes the world safe for political diversity and dissent. It is the latter norm that is raised by the Snowden disclosures, the global public interest in strengthening the options of individuals who challenge what they believe to be an overreaching of state power.
In the world of the 21st century, ideological diversity is less significant than whistleblowing dissent that is a fantastic public service on behalf of democratic openness, countering tendencies to rely on excessive secrecy in the name of post-9/11 security in which literally everyone, everywhere is a hypothetical threat. Of course, the balance of values and interests is not so clear except to conspiracy-minded dogmatists. The state is responsible for protecting its people against threats, and these can be mounted from within and without. It is said that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right,’ but here it is possible that ‘two rights should not be treated as a wrong.’ It may be that Snowden deserves some credit even here as reportedly he has not disclosed some material that would expose the way in which the National Security Agency (NSA) operates, which could jeopardize reasonable data collection procedures.
Should revealing a secret government surveillance system of global proportions be treated as revealing an international wrong? It should be a ‘no brainer’ that Snowden’s alleged crimes are quintessentially ‘political’ in nature, which would make a grant of extradition an unlawful and regressive violation, as well as an encroachment on Snowden’s human rights. Not only this, but by far the most serious ‘crimes’ exposed by Snowden documented the seeming wrongdoing of the U.S. Government and its private contractors, including Snowden’s employer, Booz, Allen, & Hamilton.
As the world now knows thanks to Snowden, the controversial surveillance targets were not only the totality of Americans, but, as well, included foreign governments and many of their most confidential activities. Under these circumstances, it seems surprising that Washington has been so vigorous in the pursuit of Snowden under conditions that made it inappropriate to prosecute him for crimes under U.S. law so long as he remained outside the country.
To date, the mainstream media dutifully tagging along with the crime chase narrative. The American strategy has managed to keep public attention focused on Snowden rather than on what his disclosures to date have revealed, and what more further bomb shells may be present in the material that is in the hands of the media, but not yet disclosed. It is one more negative example of ‘American exceptionalism.’ It is hard to imagine that the political leadership in Moscow or Beijing, or even London or Paris, would be lecturing Washington in a similar fashion if the shoe were on the other foot. Such a government would probably and sensibly shut up, and hope that the whole mess would quietly slip from view. Why the United States decides to act differently is worth a separate investigation.
We need to realize that extradition is a technique to foster maximum international collaboration designed to encourage the enhanced enforcement of national criminal law. If extradition is unavailable, as here, or even if it had been available, it would be inapplicable, there exists no respectable legal basis for the American international pursuit of Snowden? The approach adopted by Washington is quite absurd if examined objectively, and rests exclusively on its presumed geopolitical clout.
What the United States has been arguing is that since it claims the authority to cancel summarily Snowden’s passport (which itself may not be ‘legal’ since the right to travel is constitutionally protected unless there has been a prior formal judicial proceeding), he has no legal right to be present in a foreign country, and hence the politically appropriate act by a foreign government is to expel him forthwith to his country of nationality. In effect, such an approach if generally adopted would make extradition completely superfluous, and in fact, because of its limitations, far less effective than the passport cancellation/expulsion ‘remedy’ that would circumvent the political crimes exception where it is most needed and appropriate.
Lawyers, of course, earn their living by finding ingenious ways to produce counter-arguments that sometimes override not only common sense, but public reason. In this vein, it can be plausibly argued that the crimes charged against Snowden involve espionage laws and theft of government property, and as such, extradition could be granted because such behavior does not deserve to be treated as a political crime?
Some commentators have reinforced this assert by pointing to the volunteer Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, who has languished in American jails for years to show that the U.S. is entitled to gain control over Snowden to punish those who violate its espionage laws. Even the slightest reflection would reject the relevance of such an analogy. Pollard was unlawfully giving highly classified information to a foreign government and apprehended in the territory where the crime was committed, which makes the political nature of the crime irrelevant. If Snowden remained in the United States his political motivations could be argued in a court, but would not exempt him from criminal indictment and prosecution. His crimes could then be explained as politically motivated extra-legal instances of civil disobedience in the Thoreau/Martin Luther King tradition.
Snowden’s conduct might also be defended legally by stressing his non-criminal intentions and the ‘necessity’ he reasonably believed provided a basis to reveal the realities about the truly frightening scope and depth of surveillance, and thus avoid the greater harm to public interests by its undisclosed contiuation. These were more or less the arguments that Daniel Ellsberg so persuasively relied upon in the Pentagon Papers case 40 years ago to support his contention that the American people were entitled to know how their leaders manipulated facts and law to justify Vietnam War policies.
What the U.S. Government is attempting with Snowden, it seems, is a classic instance of bait and switch. Since extradition could not get the results Washington so desperately wanted even if it had been available, only diplomatic leverage could do the job. Here international law is less help to Snowden, although I would have hoped that international morality would come to his rescue. The debate now evidently swirls around the appropriateness of a grant of asylum by some foreign government, and securing safe passage to such a country. Surely, a foreign government that acceded to American demands and handed Snowden over for prosecution would bear the responsibility of knowing that Snowden’s imprisonment would follow as certainly as night follows day, and that they were weakening the protection of individuals who are wanted by governments eager to prosecute political crimes.
So far no government has been so craven as to adopt such a course of action, although none has really mounted a principled challenge to what the United States has done, and several European states have unlawfully denied air navigation rights to Bolivia’s presidential plane because the United States suspected that Snowden was on board. And apparently Austria allowed the plane carrying Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, to make an emergency landing and then be searched, and only after it was found that he was not on board was the plane allowed to resume its flight. If he had been on board, then issue of transfer would have been raised.
There does exist an extradition treaty between Austria and the United States that entered into force in 2000, and contains the following provision in Article 4(1): “Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.” End of story!
States possess wide discretion with respect to asylum policy, although asylum is conferred as a human right by Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Asylum should be granted whenever there exists well-founded grounds for fearing persecution if the person in question is expelled to the country of nationality. The granting and withholding of asylum has always been surrounded by controversial ideological considerations. During the Cold War the United States, although not formally granting asylum, never deported someone seek sanctuary from Castro’s Cuba or other Communist countries and rarely allowed sanctuary for claimants from anti-Communist countries even if fears about their wellbeing if returned were well established. It is far preferable to put asylum policy on a principled basis, but as matters now stand, there is no international legal standards that govern asylum practice.
Because asylum, unlike extradition, is treated as discretionary at the national level, diplomatic pressure is to be expected. Asylum is situated at the interface of law and morality, creating ample room for political maneuver. Intense geopolitical pressures can be brought to bear as in this case, but inappropriately from the perspective of human rights or the maintenance of a democratic and pluralist world order. It is particularly unseemly to place small Latin American countries under the gun of United States’ retaliatory diplomacy, especially when these governments are acting empathetically toward someone whose challenged conduct was undertaken on behalf of freedom and democracy with nothing personal to gain materially and much to lose. It was not as if Snowden was disgruntled after being fired from his lucrative joy as a government contract employee. Or even like the CIA retirees who wait until their pensions kick in before breaking with the agency, and writing their ‘show and tell’ stories.
Surely, Russia is better situated than Venezuela to harbor Snowden without having to worry about adverse political consequences. If Russia went ahead and offered Snowden asylum, perhaps the White House would express its frustration by issuing an intemperate statement about Russia’s unfriendly move, but likely leave at that. Doing anything more would be incredibly foolish, but of course that is no assurance that it wouldn’t happen.
All along the true challenge to the U.S. Government, the American and world independent media, and to governments and people throughout the world is consider whether such a massive regime of secret unregulated surveillance by the U.S. government in the name of national security is legally, morally, and politically acceptable.
Snowden’s individual fate, although properly a matter of the greatest concern, is secondary to the substance of the issues of principle that are present. In an unusual show of global public spiritedness and sensitivity, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a highly relevant statement: “Snowden’s case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring the rights of privacy. National systems must ensure that there are adequate avenues for individuals disclosing violations to express their concern without fear of reprisal.”
Despite the hue and cry associated with this rather indecent and extended effort by the U.S. Government to gain custody of Snowden, it is forgotten that his ‘criminal’ acts have already had some beneficial results:
• opening an overdue national debate in the United States as to the proper balance between surveillance and security;
• creating a global awareness of the extent to which the American surveillance regime has a global reach that threatens confidentiality of foreign governmental activity and the privacy of ordinary persons everywhere;
• encouraging relevant Congressional committees to consider placing limitations on invasions of privacy;
• tightening of the rules and policies relating to Department of Justice interference with journalists via acquisition of phone logs and emails.
We will miss the most crucial point of Snowden’s ‘crimes’ if we do not devote our attention to these fundamental political challenges directed at human security, democratic ways of life, and a pluralist world order.
To be distracted by the circus of the Snowden chase any longer is to play along with a shameless geopolitical caper!