As of this writing, it appears that Edward Snowden, the NSA “whistleblower,” is holed up in the Moscow airport looking for a country to take him in. He already has offers of asylum from Bolivia, Venezuela, and (mi país) Nicaragua. I’ve previously written that Mr. Snowden likely does not qualify for asylum under international law, so why would these countries offer him refuge? The answer is what I would call the “realpolitik” of asylum law.
Realpolitik has been defined as “politics or diplomacy based primarily on power… rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises.”
As applied to asylum law, realpolitik means that the receiving country is not concerned about whether the applicant meets the international law definition of refugee. Rather, the receiving country has some ulterior motive for granting asylum; it hopes to benefit itself or harm a rival by granting refuge.
In Mr. Snowden’s case, it’s not hard to imagine why certain countries–Russia, China, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua–have been willing to facilitate his journey. Russia and China, for example, have poor human rights records, authoritarian governments, and restrictions on press freedom (Freedom House rates both countries “not free”). China in particular is known for censoring the internet and cyber piracy. Venezuela has a less than stellar record when it comes to press freedom and free speech, and it apparently spies on its own citizens. Maybe by assisting Mr. Snowden, these countries hope to improve their own image while bringing the U.S. down a notch or two. Bolivia and Nicaragua perhaps see helping Mr. Snowden as “pay back” for years on the receiving end of American foreign policy (I’m thinking of the Contras in Nicaragua and–more recently–the diversion of the Bolivian president’s plane in an effort to capture Mr. Snowden).
In addition, all these countries might want to show the world that they are not afraid to stand up to the U.S. They might gain prestige (at least in their own minds) if they are seen confronting the big kid on the block.
Another reason that the different countries might offer asylum to Mr. Snowden is that they want to encourage people who damage the U.S. government’s foreign policy. Particularly when foreign relations are viewed as a zero sum game, it makes sense to diminish your rival in order to help yourself. I can see how this rationale might apply to China and the Latin American countries, but I am not sure it works with Russia. Both the U.S. and Russia have been harmed by extremist Islamic terrorists, and you’d think that there would be a mutual interest in fighting this threat (the two countries worked together after the Boston Marathon bombing, for example). It would seem to me that Russia’s protection of Mr. Snowden (and the implied endorsement of his actions) would be counter to that country’s interest in cooperating with us to stop terrorism.
Finally, I suppose it’s possible that the countries aiding Mr. Snowden are helping because they truly believe he did the right thing and they want to support him. Call me cynical, but this I doubt. The idea that Russia or China believe in the principle of government transparency is laughable. Even the Latin American countries, with their Left leaning governments that might support government transparency, seem more interested in antagonizing the U.S. and asserting their independence than in standing up for the principles that Mr. Snowden represents.
As a lawyer interested in humanitarian international law, I fear that when the asylum law is misused for realpolitik purposes, the system is weakened and made less legitimate. Asylum cases always implicate international relations; Mr. Snowden’s case more than most. But the hope is that such considerations can be minimized in order to provide protection to people fleeing persecution, regardless of the political consequences of granting (or denying) asylum.