Huffington Post: Is Edward Snowden Protected By International Law?


Is Edward Snowden Protected By International Law?

July 17, 2013

In a lot of ways, Edward Snowden is no different from any other millennial. He likes pizza, sometimes says stupid things on the internet, and can’t stand to be separated from his computer. Unlike most people his age, Snowden’s computer is full of classified documents stolen from the United States government, which is pursuing theft of property and espionage charges against him and seeking his immediate return to face a federal trial. Whether Snowden can avoid prosecution and return to some semblance of a normal millennial life now depends on how well he can navigate the intricate world of refugee law.

Snowden filed asylum requests with several countries and received asylum offers from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. The former analyst announced on Friday that he had accepted Venezuela’s invitation. However, he needs to reach the Latin American country or one of its embassies to be shielded from prosecution. The United States, for its part, has revoked Snowden’s passport and placed him on a no-fly list, effectively cornering the American in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

Snowden has repeatedly condemned U.S. efforts to restrict his movements, arguing Washington and its allies make it impossible to enjoy Venezuela’s asylum offer. Snowden has argued that attempts to prevent him from traveling to Caracas violate international law, and in particular the right to asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite this rhetoric, it is unclear to what extent international law actually protects Snowden at this point.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights inshrines a set of commonly-held fundamental rights, but is not, in itself, a legally binding document. International customary law surrounding refugees and asylum seekers is instead primarily based on the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Above all else, the Convention establishes the principle of non-refoulement, which expressly forbids states from expelling or returning “a refugee…to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Snowden argued during a press conference in Moscow that he is protected by the principle of non-refoulement, which would bar Russia, one of 145 signatories of the 1951 Convention, from sending him anywhere that would lead him back to the U.S.

To invoke that right, however, he will have to prove that he meets the standards of the UN convention, which defines a refugee as someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or…unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

In order to prove such a claim, Snowden would have to show that he is being persecuted for his political opinions or membership of the social group of whistleblowers, not merely prosecuted for a crime. He would additionally have to show that the crime he is accused of committing was political in nature, because refugee status is not available to those who have “committed a serious non-political crime.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Handbook on Procedures and Criteria

for Determining Refugee Status under the UN Convention states that a crime should be considered political if “it has been committed out of genuine political motives and not merely for personal reasons or gain” and there is “a close and direct causal link between the crime committed and its alleged political purpose and object.”

Based on his statements, Snowden’s alleged crimes appear to be political in nature. His decision to leak classified documents appears to have been motivated by his political opinions about the overreaches of U.S. surveillance programs, and his goal of bringing an end to these overreaches could not have been achieved without said leaks. As Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, said: “crimes like ‘espionage’ are widely regarded as classic ‘political offenses.'”

Still, the question remains whether the United States’ prosecution of Snowden for espionage rises to the level of persecution. Snowden is being prosecuted for willful communication of classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person, not for expressing his political opinions. The UNHCR Handbook states that “punishment for a common law offense” is normally not considered persecution. However, excessive punishment for such an offense can amount to persecution.

According to Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a law professor specializing in international human rights and immigration at Temple University, the ten year prison sentences for espionage charges the U.S. filed against Snowden do not appear to rise to the level of persecution under international law.

However, several prominent members of the U.S. Government, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Bill Nelson and Secretary of State Kerry, have suggested that Snowden may be guilty of treason, which carries the possibility of a death sentence.

In 1989, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Jens Soering, a German national, could not be extradited to the United States because he faced a possible death sentence for murder there. “If [Snowden] were charged with treason,” says Ramji-Nogales, “he might have a legitimate claim under the [United Nations] Convention against Torture and maybe even under the Refugee Convention.”

However, as Dylan Matthews notes in the Washington Post, the chances that Snowden will actually be charged with treason are low, because the definition of treason set in the U.S. Constitution is an exceedingly high standard. Less than 3 dozen people have been charged with treason in U.S. history, and even Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were caught passing state secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, were not. Instead, the pair was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, the law Snowden is officially accused of violating.



As of yet, we have no clear indication that Snowden has actually sought refugee status with any nation or formally invoked the principle of non-refoulement. Our best indication of the tenor of Snowden’s asylum requests, a leaked copy of the asylum letter he sent to Poland, makes no mention of the UN Refugee Convention or any other legal standards. According to Ramji-Nogales, the letter “is not really a legal document” at all.

Consequently, Snowden’s many asylum requests fall under the domestic asylum laws of each country separately, not international law. The specific criteria to receive political asylum vary from country to country, as demonstrated by Snowden’s tally of acceptances and rejections. Ultimately, “domestic law governs the availability and procedures for any ‘asylum’ category arising purely under domestic law and separate from refugee status,” explains Professor Saul.

On July 5, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro stated that he had granted Snowden “humanitarian political asylum.” Under Venezuelan law, asylum falls under a different category than refugee status, and can be granted to anyone who is “persecuted for his or her beliefs, opinions or political affiliation, for acts that could be considered as political crimes, or for common crimes committed for political purposes.”

The Venezuelan asylum offer resembles the diplomatic asylum Ecuador granted to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012. Ecuador cited the possibility of “political persecution” or capital punishment that awaited Assange in the U.S. to justify the approval.

While Ecuador recognizes Assange as an asylum seeker, it did not give the WikiLeaks founder refugee status. Snowden’s Venezuelan offer makes the same distinction. This is important, because if Snowden’s Venezuelan asylum fell under UN refugee status, other signatories of the 1951 Convention would be bound, at the very least, not to return Snowden to the United States. That is not the case for asylum seekers.

So while Snowden argued in his press conference on Friday that “no state has a basis by which to limit or interfere with my right to enjoy that asylum,” the situation is more complicated from a legal perspective.


In addition, if Edward Snowden wants the same protection Assange enjoys, limited though it is, he will have to get himself to Venezuela or one of its embassies or consulates.

The primary barrier to Snowden’s travel right now is his lack of travel documents. Snowden accused the United States of “using citizenship as a weapon” and making him a “stateless person” by revoking his passport in a statement released in the WikiLeaks website. However, under U.S. law, the State Department has the right to revoke the passport of a federal felony warrant subject.

According to The Guardian, Snowden was able to travel to Russia using a temporary travel pass issued by Ecuador. In recent days, however, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has stated in interviews that the document was issued in error by the Ecuadorian Consul in London. Under Venezuelan domestic law, asylees have the right to be granted identity documents, but the availability of temporary travel documents is not specified.

Snowden’s lawyer announced on Tuesday that Snowden applied for temporary asylum in Russia. According to Professor Saul, the approval of temporary asylum could garner Snowden the travel documents necessary to fly to other countries, including Venezuela.

Even if Snowden can get a valid travel document, however, he may still have difficulty reaching Caracas. International law does not require countries to grant safe passage to domestic asylum candidates, and Spain, France and Portugal have already indicated they may refuse Snowden access to their airspace.

Max Fisher at the Washington Post came up with a series of possible routes that avoid the airspace of the U.S. and its allies, but whether such routes are actually feasible remains to be determined.

If Snowden can fly to the Russian Far East airport of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and charter a plane across the Pacific Ocean, as Fisher suggests, he may be able to reach a Latin American country without crossing any unfriendly airspace. From there, he is guaranteed safe passage as a Venezuelan asylee under the 1928 Havana Convention on Asylum, which is signed by most Latin American countries. However, such a flight is both literally and figuratively a long shot.


Huffington Post: Egypt Map Shows Why Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam Is Such A Big Deal


Egypt Map Shows Why Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam Is Such A Big Deal

June 14, 2013

The Associated Press reports that Ethiopia has ratified a landmark accord with five other African countries concerning the shared use of the Nile River and its tributaries. The agreement is seen as a step forward in Ethiopia’s plans to build a massive, hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile River, which feeds the Nile. Egypt is neither a signatory of the new agreement nor a supporter of the dam, and Egyptian politicians have recently been caught suggesting that the dam be sabotaged, according to AP. If you are wondering why Egypt cares so much about the construction of a dam along the Blue Nile 1,400 miles away, look no further than the following map:


Created by Wikipedia user Giorgiogp2, this map depicts the population density of Egypt in 2010, measured in persons per kilometer squared, with the deeper shades having higher density. Data was taken from Columbia University’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center.

The fight for control of the Nile is a complex and long-running issue involving factors such as British colonial policies, economics, and massive environmental questions. Organizations like GlobalPost, Reuters, and The Economist have terrific in-depth stories explaining these concerns. But ultimately, Egypt’s commitment to preserving its control of the river is very easy to explain: the Nile is Egypt, and Egypt is the Nile.

Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East — the government estimates a population of close to 84.6 million people — yet 97 percent of the country is barren desert. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 99 percent of the Egyptian population lives on that remaining 3 percent, most of which is the Nile River valley and delta, as the population density map shows. Though Egypt is yet to actually threaten military action to halt the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, President Mohamed Morsi has stated that all options are on the table. What is clear to Morsi was clear to every ruler of Egypt reaching back to the Pharaohs: without the Nile, there is nothing.

Huffington Post: Why Is Turkey Protesting? A Look At What Taksim’s Protesters Are Angry About


Why Is Turkey Protesting? A Look At What Taksim’s Protesters Are Angry About

June 4, 2013

It began as a nice day in the park. On May 30, before Turks drew the wrath of their government and the attention of the world, a group of activists congregated in a small park in Istanbul, hoping to save it from being razed for the construction of a shopping mall and replica Ottoman barracks. Only 1.5 percent of Istanbul is devoted to public green space, making Gezi Park a key respite within the sprawling metropolis. The day had “a festival-like atmosphere,” with people singing, dancing and eating watermelon and chickpeas sold by street vendors, the Atlantic Cities reports.

Then police raided the demonstration with tear gas and water cannons, more protestors appeared in response, and the once peaceful protest morphed into a massive outpouring of anger at the Turkish government.

Now it seems protesters are airing as many grievances as there are mosques in Istanbul: complaints of aggressive urban development; the loss of cultural heritage; violations of press freedom; growing Islamism in the government; police brutality; Turkish support of Syrian rebels; and the pursuit of peace with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

Through every complaint runs the idea that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now entering his 11th year in power, is ignoring the wishes of his people in pursuit of his own authoritarian goals. The police abuses over the past week have been well documented, but Erdogan cannot be seen simply as Turkey’s Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi. The climate and circumstances in Turkey are not so easily simplified.

Was Recep Tayyip Erdogan democratically elected?

Yes. Turkey has been a parliamentary republic since 1923, and despite a history of single-party rule and military coups, its elections of late have been widely hailed as both free and fair. When Erdogan was first elected Prime Minister in 2002, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) controlled a majority of Turkey’s legislature despite receiving only 34 percent of the total votes. The country remains strongly divided, but AKP’s tally has grown in each successive election, culminating in a full 50 percent of votes in 2011. The AKP’s advancement comes in large part from Turkey’s economic revitalization over the past decade, when the nation rode a massive growth wave while the neighboring European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, faltered.

What do Erdogan and his party want?

AKP is typically described as a socially conservative, pro-business, moderately Islamic party. New development projects reflect the party’s pro-business tilt, though bolstering Turkey’s economy often comes at the expense of cultural landmarks and the environment. The reconstruction of Gezi Park fully epitomizes that dichotomy.

Though not the first moderate Islamic party in Turkey (in fact, it was built on the bases of similar, older parties), AKP is by far the most powerful. Much has been made of the conversion of a secular Turkish state toward a more Islamic society. Since taking power, Erdogan has converted secular schools into religious schools and ended the ban on headscarves in universities, a change he intends to extend to government offices, according to Hurriyet Daily News. In late May, AKP also spearheaded a law limiting when and where alcohol can be sold.

Isn’t Turkey already Islamic?

Though Turkey’s population is 99.8 percent Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook, its modern state is built on the principle of secularism. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, wanted Turkey to make a clean break from the Ottoman Empire that preceded it, according to Bloomberg, and even went so far as to change printed Turkish from an Arabic to a Latin script. Erdogan’s critics accuse him of chipping away at Turkey’s secular foundations and moving the state gradually toward an Iran-styled theocracy.

Is the Turkish public against Erdogan’s Islamic bent?

Hard to say. Ataturk is almost universally revered by Turks, and pro-secular rallies regularly draw in the hundreds of thousands in Turkey. At the same time, pro-Islamic parties have steadily gained power, driven by the rural, conservative base that now supports AKP. It’s unclear if Turkey’s democracy and secularism are fully compatible. The first time an Islamist party gained control of the government, in 1997, it was forced out of power in a bloodless coup orchestrated by the pro-secular army.

When it comes to the reforms made thus far, Erdogan seems to have the backing of most Turks. A 2007 KONDA Consultancy poll found that 69 percent of Turkish citizens cover their heads or are married to someone who does, and a full 78 percent opposed the ban on head-covering in universities. But some Turks point to AKP’s links to the Fethullah Gulen movement, a massive Islamic NGO that runs schools around the world, and argue the party’s true goal is a fully Islamic state.

The growing emphasis on Turkey’s Islamic identity has also served as a basis for Erdogan’s entreaties with the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which brought about a historic ceasefire earlier this year. Ataturk’s Turkish nationalism had no place for the Kurds, but Islamism promises to unite Turks and Kurds through a common religious identity.

Why hasn’t the military been able to stop Erdogan?

Ultimately, Erdogan is stronger. He was a member of the Islamic party ousted in 1997, and since AKP took power, the army and judiciary have tried to ban AKP and its candidates from national elections, but have failed. In return, AKP launched a massive investigation into a shadowy group known as Ergenekon, which it “claimed had been responsible for virtually every act of political violence – and controlled every terrorist group – in Turkey over the last 30 years,” according to the Turkey Analyst. Subsequent prosecutions were almost certainly politically motivated, as army generals and journalists who criticized AKP and the Fethullah Gulen movement have been pursued. More than 400 military officers have been jailed, cowing a once powerful bulwark of Turkey’s founding principles.

While the Ergenekon cases are one of the main grievances of the protesters, the public is still divided on what role the military should play, and even Turkey’s main opposition party wants to limit its political activities.

Has Erdogan squelched the freedom of the press?

Unquestionably. As of 2012, Turkey was the world’s worst jailer of journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, members of the media who criticize government actions or publish information it does not want public are charged and imprisoned through a variety of anti-terrorism laws. Journalists who question the existence of Ergenekon are soon charged with membership in Ergenekon. Even more journalists are fired or silenced by their employers, who fear prosecution. The Turkish government even banned Youtube entirely in 2008, based on charges the site hosted videos critical of Ataturk. The concerted hounding of critical journalism has been so successful that during the height of the protests this past weekend, CNN Turk chose to air a penguin documentary.

What has Erdogan done in Syria?

Erdogan has come out in strong support of the rebels battling Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Assad has responded with small-scale attacks across the border into Turkey. Turkey says the devastating twin car bombings in the southern city of Reyhanli on May 11, 2013, were conducted by Syrian agents. Many Turks saw the 51 killed in the attack as retribution for Erdogan’s support of Syrian rebels, which 65 percent of the Turkish public opposes, according to a Pew Research poll.

How does Erdogan see himself?

According to U.S. diplomatic cables released by Der Spiegel, Erdogan fancies himself “The Tribune of Anatolia” and believes he was chosen by God to lead Turkey. Turkish newspaper columnists have accused the PM of building a cult of personality around himself, turning his political party into a “one-man show.” In his initial response to the protests, Erdogan projected an air of defiance and a lack of concern for the grievances of those who oppose him. “If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people,” he said. “Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together 1 million from my party.”

Erdogan has reached his term limit as prime minister, but he has made clear he wants to run for president in 2014, and to alter the form of the Turkish government before then so the presidency would be more powerful than the largely ceremonial role it plays today. Erdogan does not currently control enough votes to change Turkey’s constitution unilaterally, and opposition parties in parliament are loath to help him. Even so, the protests have provided no clear sign that Erdogan’s majority has cracked, and 2014’s election seems far on the horizon.

Huffington Post: Spain’s S-81 Isaac Peral Submarine Cost $680 Million To Build… And Can’t Float


Spain’s S-81 Isaac Peral Submarine Cost $680 Million To Build… And Can’t Float

May 24, 2013

As Spain seeks to rein in ballooning deficits, it has discovered some of its bloat surfacing from an unexpected place: under the sea.

According to El Pais, the S-81 Isaac Peral — the first of four state-of-the-art new submarines commissioned for the Spanish Navy — is 75 to 100 tons overweight. That may not seem like a lot, considering the submarine’s full weight when submerged is 2,430 tons, but according to engineers at Navantia, the Spanish shipbuilding company responsible for its design, that excess bulk is enough to prevent the Isaac Peral from successfully resurfacing once submerged.

Unfortunately for the Spainards, Quartz reports that they have already sunk the equivalent of $680 million into the Isaac Peral, and a total of $3 billion into the entire quartet of S-80 class submarines.

The descent has been precipitous for the S-80 subs, which some had hailed as the most modern non-nuclear submarines in the world. Among the S-80’s celebrated advancements is a diesel-electric propulsion engine that, ironically, promises to be 20% lighter than comparable systems while delivering 50% more power. The submarines’ technical specifications, along with a computer-generated image of what one will look like, can be found here.

If Spain hopes to salvage its submarines, it must either find some weight that can be trimmed from the current design or lengthen the ship to accomodate the excess weight, The Local notes. Though the latter option is more feasible, it is expected to cost Spain an extra $9.7 million per meter.

The submarine setback couldn’t have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is embroiled in a corruption scandal and saw his approval rating hit a record low in 2013, Reuters reports. According to RT, Rajoy’s austerity cuts trimmed the Spanish military budget by 30 percent in 2012, leaving much less room for added ballast. With Quartz reporting that the S-80 program will be delayed an estimated two years and another general election looming in 2015, Rajoy likely will not see the submarines through to fruition.

Spain’s opposition United Left party pounced on the opportunity to criticize the current administration. According to EFE, United Left deputy Gaspar Llamazares quoted a famous monologue by Spanish comedian Miguel Gila in a formal question submitted to the Bureau of the Congress of Deputies, asking if the S-80 submarine was “well-colored but did not float.” While the humor may be lost in translation, the jest was taken seriously by the Bureau, which scolded Llamazares for his mocking tone.

How did such an expensive project get funded while, as El Mundo notes, the Spanish military’s entire special weapons program received a 98% cut? Sheer pride seems to have been a factor: according to Harvard Magazine, the Isaac Peral is named for the Spanish inventor said to have built the first functional modern submarine, and as El Pais explains, Spain hoped the S-80 class would be a new homegrown breakthrough achieved without foreign help.

Now that Navantia is considering bringing in an American contractor to help with the redesign, that dream seems dead in the water.