Edward Snowden was a NSA contractor that leaked an unknown number of confidential files to the press. Snowden always planned on being granted an asylum to avoid jail time for leaking the documents. This is apparent, since he left the US before leaking the documents, and stated that he was searching for an asylum in interviews after the leaks. (Greenwald et al. par. 55). Regardless of one’s emotions towards Snowden, to argue against political asylums as a whole would be to argue against protecting foreign citizens. Political asylums are a necessary safety net for citizens who break unjust laws or need to escape a flawed or corrupt government. Snowden is an excellent example of why political asylums are necessary, however, he is not the typical asylum seeker. Snowden’s unique asylum process reflects the impact of asylums on political relations and the power of the United States.
The average American only has a vague idea of what an asylum actually is despite Snowden’s asylum status being a focal point of his story. An asylum is a form of protection from arrest granted to a political refugee by a nation. The nuisance is a person is only a legal refugee after they have been granted an asylum. An asylum seeker is someone that is searching for protection and claims to be refugees, but their status is not confirmed legally unless they are granted a political asylum. Russia’s definition of a refugee, as stated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is “a person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (United “Information” par. 1). Snowden feared being prosecuted by the US based on his political views and was charged with political offences, so he was considered a political refugee. However, it is somewhat apparent, based on the definition of refugee, that Snowden is atypical in the realm of political refugees. The average political refugee is escaping an unsafe country, like a war zone, or faces discrimination, such as racism or homophobia, on such an extreme level that their life or freedom is at risk.
Snowden’s risk of staying in America is just as bad as some of the things the average refugee faces: unfair trials, unjust treatments, and possible abuse during detention. Snowden himself said that “he hoped the publicity the leaks have generated will offer him some protection, making it ‘harder for them to get dirty’” (Snowden as quoted by Greenwald par. 53). Snowden was not afraid of prison; he feared losing his life. But he did commit a crime, so why should a criminal like Snowden be granted protection when he broke the law? Some may argue that criminals should not be granted asylum because their countries should be allowed to charge and prosecute them for their crimes, but laws would be viewed differently in another society. If people just let countries do whatever they want to their citizens, there would be no global campaign for human rights. Russia believes that Snowden should not be prosecuted by the US, so they granted him temporary asylum. Snowden received a great deal of support from Russian citizens; his arrival “was broadly cheered by many [in Russia] who have defended his decision to leak the secrets of American surveillance” (Myers and Kramer par. 16). Russia’s general support for Snowden demonstrates how one action can be condemned in one society but praised in another; this is one of the most basic reasons asylums are needed.
The US obviously did not want anyone to grant Snowden’s asylum request, and when Russia did there was definitely a shift in US Russian relations. The Obama administration attempted to block Snowden’s transport to other countries from Hong Kong most notably by cancelling his passport (Lee par. 2). After an asylum was granted to him, Obama actually went as far as cancelling a summit with Vladimir Putin (Gearan and Rucker par. 1). The action was described as “a rare, deliberate snub that reflects the fresh damage done by the Edward Snowden case to an important relationship already in decline” (Gearan and Rucker par. 1). This move was an aggressive power play by the Obama administration to demonstrate what happens when someone protects America’s enemies; they are disregarded. Russia and the United States have not had a good relationship for a very long time. The countries have never been able to play nice, but the Obama administration had been making great strides to repair that relationship. The fact that protecting one person can affect how two countries interact with one another reflects the fragility of political relations, especially involving strong, first-world countries. One person should not cause countries to ignore one another and act passive aggressively, and the way to prevent a country’s from overreacting like this is not to ignore an individual’s safety and human rights.
Snowden, like every other refugee deserves to be safe and live as close to a normal life as possible. Snowden was granted a one year long temporary asylum on July 31, 2013 and when it expired, Russia extended it for three years (Luhn and Tran par. 1). According to Myers and Kramer, writers for The New York Times, Snowden is able to work and live anywhere in Russia without fear of being detained, deported, or arrested by the United States. There are permanent asylums, but Snowden was not granted one by Russia or any other country. There has been speculation that he will seek permanent asylum in South America, but he can apply for one in any country (Myers and Kramer par. 3-14). Snowden is able to live a relatively normal life in Russia. He can have a job, family, and home, but most importantly he is safe and protected there. This might anger the Americans that see Snowden as a traitor, but this is the point of an asylum. Every person deserves to be safe; refugees run from their homeland because they face injustices based on their political opinions, race, ideology, and sexuality. Refugees are discriminated against and turned into criminals just for existing, and political asylums are there to protect them. Snowden may not be the average refugee, but he deserves the same sense of safety. Americans would not be angered by a country rescuing civilians from war zones, but it is the same logic; if a place is unsafe for a certain person, that person should be removed from said unsafe place. Americans find those conditions unsafe to live in, so they get involved and protect people from the terrors occurring in their homeland; America is not safe for Snowden. Snowden has expressed the fear of losing his life several times. Just after the leaks, Snowden was asked in an interview what he thinks will happen to him. His only response to this question was “nothing good” (Snowden as quoted by MacAskill par. 11). The fact that a US citizen can logically fear for his life just because he stood up against the injustices of the government is sickening. America is supposed to have due process and justice. The people are supposed to be able to trust the government to protect them, not to betray US citizens and collect their data without anyone’s knowledge. No one is supposed to just disappear in the US. That is not how this country is supposed to run.
It is obvious that Snowden will be arrested if he steps foot on American soil, and he is facing very serious charges that could lead to a death sentence. Yes, breaking the law has punishments, but people are pardoned for crimes and cases are thrown out all of the time. Snowden did what was just. It was his civic duty to release those documents. Congress did not even know all of the information he leaked (Chang par. 13). How could Congress do anything to change the surveillance programs that were going on behind the NSA’s closed doors when they were just as unaware of what was going on as the average American? They cannot do anything, which is exactly how the NSA wanted it. Snowden brought corruption to light by leaking confidential documents, and the Obama administration and NSA are seeking to punish Snowden because he made the government look corrupt and foolish. The worst part of Snowden’s legal situation is that he is not legally considered a whistleblower, so he does not get any extra legal protections for whistle blowing. Most of his supporters, however, would argue that even though he is not legally classified as a whistleblower, the information he leaked was just as important, if not more, than every other American whistleblower. Snowden needs and deserves his asylum just as much as any other refugee deserves protection.
Snowden has yet to accept jail time as a punishment, because he does not want to lose the civil liberties that are taken away from felons. However, recently, Snowden has been considering jail time to come home to the United States. The one thing Snowden will not accept is becoming a felon. Ben Wizner, Snowden’s lawyer, said that “our position is he should not be reporting to prison as a felon and losing his civil rights as a result of his act of conscience” (Wizner as quoted by Graham par. 5). He is being charged under The Espionage Act of 1917 for theft of government property and willful communication of government documents which is classified as a felony level crime (Finn and Horwitz par. 2). When a person is charged for a felony and serves jail time, they lose a great deal of rights when they leave prison. Felons are disenfranchised, cannot serve on a jury, and cannot serve in a government office. As a concerned and passionate US citizen, Snowden would not want to lose these rights, especially his right to vote. If anything, there should be more involved citizens concerned with the corruptions in the US government. Snowden stated “my sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them” (Snowden as quoted by Greenwald et al. par. 7). Snowden deserves his asylum because leaking the documents was an unselfish act to protect the American people. He saw the secrets of the NSA and could not sit by and let the American people trust a government that was abusing its power. The government needed to be called out. If it was a big corporation abusing its power, everyone would want to know and would support Snowden. The government just does not want to have to be held accountable for what they have done and what they have hidden from the American people.
The US has made it very difficult for Snowden to receive an asylum. If a plea deal is not reached by July 31, 2017, when Snowden’s asylum in Russia expires, Snowden will either have to apply for his asylum to be renewed or apply for an asylum in another country. Right now, Snowden has a few different options; he could apply for permanent asylum in Russia or another country, return to the United States and face his full charges, or continue to renew his temporary asylum until he is able to apply for Russian citizenship. The US did everything they could to try to prevent Snowden from being granted an asylum. Not only did the US cancel his passport as he was trying to flee Hong Kong, but the power of the US alone intimidates other countries into ignoring his requests. According to Haroon Siddique, a writer for The Guardian, Snowden actually applied for an asylum in 21 different countries in 2013. All 21 countries, including Russia, initially rejected him, did not answer him, or responded with a maybe (Siddique par. 1-23). Snowden was barely able to receive any form of asylum in 2013 when he was originally looking for one. Since he has been granted an asylum by Russia, the US has cancelled a meeting with Russian officials. The actions taken by the US will drastically effect Snowden’s chances of being granted an asylum elsewhere. When a person flees from a country as powerful as the United States they have even less power than the average refugee. US allies would not grant Snowden an asylum because they would not want to upset the US; this rules out many safe first world countries for a refugee to seek asylum. The top five countries that received the most asylum applications in 2014 were Germany, the United States, Turkey, Sweden, and Italy (United “Asylum” 3). Snowden applied to Germany and Italy out of those five countries. Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister of Germany, responded that the request would be processed “’according to the law’, although he ‘could not imagine’ that it would be approved” (Westerwelle as quoted by Siddique par. 10). Italy, like several other countries Snowden applied to, said that a request for an asylum would have to be presented at Italy’s border (Siddique par 13). No asylum seeker would travel to a country’s border to place a request for an asylum when it is not guaranteed the asylum will be granted. The asylum seeker knows this and the various countries that gave Snowden a response like this know it too. Italy did not want to have to deal with Snowden, so they gave a bureaucratic answer to a struggling person seeking safety. There are too many political games in political asylums. No country should have to face consequences for protecting a refugee, and more countries would have granted Snowden’s request for an asylum if he was not fleeing from the US.
The US has been able to limit Snowden’s options by being the bully of the UN. This happened when the US cancelled Snowden’s passport, when they requested Snowden be detained (Burrough et al. par. 82), and when they cancelled the meeting with Putin after Snowden’s asylum request was accepted. Foreign policy that is run by intimidation like the US has done in Snowden’s case will only result in less rights for people everywhere. It will lead to less people standing up for what is right despite the consequences. It will lead to countries turning a blind eye to the suffering of others in foreign affairs. We do not want countries to keep their head down and try to stay out of the spotlight to avoid conflict when that means ignoring the pain of refugees. We cannot let the US or any other singular country become the one and only super power. Russia did what other countries were too afraid to do; they helped a refugee despite their best political interest. Russia should not have been the only country to accept Snowden’s request for an asylum. Every country should step in to help the refugee, and the country the refugee is fleeing from should not be able to through tantrums until their refugee is returned to them.