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An Answer to the Edward Snowden Debate:

An Answer to the Edward Snowden Debate: Meeting the United Nations Criteria for Political Asylum or Refugee Status After spending the past week-and-a-half in a transit

One week after leaving Hong Kong in fear of being apprehended by U.S. authorities, the former NSA employee and whistleblower released his first statement in which he said, "Although I am convicted of nothing, [the U.S.] has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person" (YOU.S.DESK, 2013). In referring to himself as a "stateless" individual, some confusion has unnecessarily arisen regarding whether Snowden's case is a matter of political asylum or refugee status. To clarify the issue, political asylum and refugee status are legal protections for people who have left their home country for their own safety and are afraid to return (Bray, 2013). The only difference between political asylum and refugee status concerns the whereabouts of the person seeking legal protection. When an individual like Edward Snowden is outside the country for which he is seeking legal protection, Venezuela, for example, he must apply for refugee status. Once he is in Venezuela, however, his avenue for legal protection becomes a case of applying for political asylum. Either way, with the granting of political asylum or refugee status, an individual like Snowden would receive the same legal protections.

Political asylum and refugee status, on the international level, are both governed by the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. As such, these two international legal instruments have been adopted within the framework of the United Nations (Moussalli, 1992). When read together, a general definition of the refugee emerges and, thereby, the definitive U.N. criteria for determining whether or not an individual like Edward Snowden can be granted political asylum or refugee status is provided:

  • any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion. Stateless persons may also be refugees in this sense, where country of origin (citizenship) is understood as "country of former habitual residence." (Goodwin-Gill, 2008)

In directly evaluating whether Snowden meets the United Nations' criteria according to the definition of a refugee, the whistleblower is unable to make any legitimate claims on the basis of well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular group. The only possible basis for meeting the criteria of the United Nations' for refugee status would, therefore, concern Snowden's fear of persecution for his political opinions or his claim of being a stateless individual.

The latter claim can be readily dismissed by virtue of the definition of statelessness provided by the United Nations. More specifically, the United Nations defines statelessness as: "any person who is not considered as a national by any state through its nationality legislation or constitution" (UNHCR, 2007). An individual becomes stateless in one or more ways that do not apply to Edward Snowden: state dissolution, decolonization, conflicts of laws where an individual is born to a father and mother of different nationalities, arbitrary deprivation of nationality by the state, and various forms of governmental discrimination (UNHCR, 2007). Simply put, despite his expatriation, Snowden is still a citizen of the United States, and as such, he does not satisfy the definition of statelessness as set forth by the United Nations.

With respect to qualifying Snowden's claim of refugee status according to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of political opinion, the whistleblower appears to have a viable case. In his own words, Snowden sees himself as a whistleblower whose "freedom and safety" are under threat for revealing the truth (YOU.S.DESK, 2013). Further, Snowden believes that if he were returned to the United States he would face serious harm for his political opinions - specifically, that the American public and citizens of the world should be informed of massive U.S. government intrusion on privacy rights (Human Rights Watch, 2013). On both of these accounts, Snowden's contentions and claims seem far from unreasonable or illogical.



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