The White House had plenty of good reasons to cancel the September meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow has been arming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, passing discriminatory anti-gay laws, and cracking down on dissent. But calling off the meeting over Russia’s granting of temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden risks further politicizing a process that should, to the greatest extent possible, operate outside the realm of international relations.
The United States has led the international effort to protect the rights of refugees and, to that end, has sought to separate the asylum process from geopolitical dealings. Regardless of whether Snowden’s actions were noble, villainous, or something in between, how the United States responds to his bid for asylum could impact the fate of refugees everywhere as they try to escape violence and repression.
While the United States has a right to pursue a criminal case against Snowden, it crosses a line when it threatens to retaliate against a country for considering his case for asylum. Conversely, while countries have a right, and in some cases an obligation, to consider Snowden’s request for asylum, they cross a line when they do so strictly to provoke the United States. It’s troubling that President Vladimir Putin seems to be using Snowden to score political points against the United States.
But unlike the United States, Russia has never been a leader in refugee protection. In the wake of World War II, the United States worked with other nations to create an international refugee protection system, the cornerstone of which is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (a treaty the Soviets rejected and never ratified; Russia acceded after the fall of the Soviet Union). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also drafted under U.S. leadership, includes the right to seek asylum.
Initially, U.S. refugee and asylum policy reflected Cold War politics as the country extended protection to people fleeing communist regimes but rejected those fleeing other forms of repression. With the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States enshrined into law its commitment to protect the persecuted and established a standard for uniform and principled asylum eligibility, removing the ideological biases that had distorted the system.
For a time though, the U.S. asylum system continued to struggle, often denying protection to the victims of right-leaning regimes supported by the United States; those fleeing regimes of the left had an easier time gaining asylum. Ultimately, the government affirmed the Refugee Act’s wise position that ideology shouldn’t drive policy. The United States shouldn’t deny protection to refugees simply because they come from the “wrong” countries or provide protection to them simply because they come from the “right” ones. The simple, crucial idea is that asylum seekers must not become political pawns.
While in certain high-profile cases it may be difficult for governments to completely cleanse the asylum process of geopolitical concerns, this is the ideal that they should pursue. Yet so far, Snowden’s search for a country willing to provide him safe haven seems to have revived the Cold War approach to asylum, when governments played politics with asylum seekers.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro announced his offer of asylum to Snowden during a military parade marking the country’s independence, asking "Who is the guilty one? A young man … who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad?" Not exactly a sober, apolitical consideration of Snowden’s case for asylum.
Meanwhile American officials, as they pursue efforts to prosecute Snowden, have pressed governments to turn Snowden away. Vice President Joe Biden directly appealed to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. Bolivian President Evo Morales’s airplane was forced to land in Europe due to suspicions that Snowden was on board. And the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed a resolution calling on the State Department to consider sanctions against other countries in the pursuit of Snowden.
These diplomatic maneuverings could weaken international respect for asylum, with potentially devastating consequences for those who need protection from persecution and upheaval. A global trend-setter, the United States — through its words and actions — could encourage other countries both to use refugees as weapons in geopolitical disputes and to use their diplomatic, economic, and even military power to try to influence asylum decisions.
The United States was wise to lead the effort to divorce the asylum process from dealings between countries. You need not believe that Snowden is a hero — or even that he has a valid case for protection — to recognize the dangers that arise when a country uses its clout to try to influence other countries’ consideration of an asylum application.
Introducing the Refugee Protection Act in the House a few months ago, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said, “Americans have long been a compassionate people, offering a safe harbor to victims of devastating calamities and survivors of tortuous, brutal regimes.” U.S. officials should remember — and protect — this proud tradition as they navigate the Snowden issue.
As the director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection program, Eleanor Acer oversees Human Rights First’s pro bono representation program and advocacy on issues relating to refugee protection, asylum, and migrants’ rights.