This article was published in The Guardian (UK) on July 1, 2013.
With Edward Snowden stuck in limbo in the Moscow airport transit space, many people in the United States and around the world are wondering what can be done to help him. More than 123,000 Americans have signed a petition on the White House web site saying that “Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon.” Other petitions of support have gathered as many as 1.3 million signatures.
Actually there is quite a bit that can be done by various actors to help Snowden reach a safe place where he can be free from persecution by the U.S. government.
The governments of Ecuador, Russia, and Venezuela have invited Snowden to apply for asylum, and there is little doubt that it would be granted. The legal basis for political asylum is very strong, especially since the U.S. government has charged Snowden under the Espionage Act. Since it is pretty clear that there was no espionage involved here – no evidence that he collaborated or even met with any foreign governments – this is one obvious indicator that Snowden has a well-founded fear of persecution. And politically, despite efforts by much of the media to brand Snowden a criminal and a traitor, most of the world appears to sympathize with him. Any government that helps him would almost certainly have popular support at home.
The problem is that these governments are reluctant to take the necessary steps to get Snowden freedom because of possible U.S. retaliation. Of course, retaliation is not as likely as many people think: Washington was angry with Hong Kong for about a day after they rejected its request for extradition, and then it blew over. John Kerry’s warnings of “consequences” for Russia and China were reversed on Thursday by President Obama, who sought to lower the profile of the whole issue. Another recent example of threatened retaliation that did not materialize was the United States’ threats to Palestinians for seeking U.N. recognition of their state.
And there are things that other governments could do to help this process along. First and easiest, the governments of South America – perhaps through UNASUR or another regional body – can denounce Washington’s threats to cut off Ecuador’s trade preferences in retaliation for offering to receive Snowden’s application for political asylum. They took similar steps in response to the U.K.’s threats to invade Ecuador’s embassy in London to capture Julian Assange, and these moves were politically successful.
Second, more governments can make statements in support of what Snowden did, as politely as they prefer, and offer to receive an application for political asylum – something that they are required to do under international law in any case. The more governments that make such statements, the more difficult it is for Washington to isolate or retaliate against any one of them.
Third, although Ecuador was reluctant to offer travel documents for Snowden, other governments can do that. Again, the more governments that state their willingness to do that, the less likely is retaliation from Washington.
Then there is the question of how he gets to a safe country. Here, any friendly government could offer him a private plane – it is a minimal expense for a government. Prominent citizens from the United States and other countries could offer to accompany Snowden, to reduce the chances of risky behavior by the U.S. military (although Obama has said that he “was not going to scramble any jets” to get Snowden). The Russian government could also make sure that the Aeroflot flight to Cuba, if it carries Snowden, is re-routed so that it does not fly too close to the United States.
The Russian government, if it is unwilling to offer Snowden a visa for its own country, could provide transportation to the Ecuadorean or another government embassy in Moscow, where Snowden could apply for asylum and then resolve the travel document issue. From there, the Russians would be legally obligated to offer Snowden safe passage to the country that had offered him asylum. (The British government’s confinement of Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for the past year, after he has received asylum from Ecuador, is illegal under international law.)
Finally, there is the “Second Superpower,” as global civil society was named in 2003 when tens of millions of people hit the streets worldwide against the planned U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In addition to pressuring their governments to take one or more of the various steps outlined above, citizens can act on their own. For example, they could form a “Snowden Aviation Club,” to raise money for a private plane to take him to a safe place. Or even a helicopter to transport him to the Ecuadorean embassy in Moscow. The funds for either of these options should be easy to raise, given his popular support.
Edward Snowden has performed a heroic service to the people of the United States and the world by exposing widespread and serious government abuses that are a threat to freedom everywhere. It’s up to everyone who understands this – both inside and outside of government -- to make sure that he is not persecuted for doing so.