According to recent news reports, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked documents revealing the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, has applied for political asylum in at least twenty-one countries. Though his applications have not been made public, Snowden has received at least three offers of asylum: from Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The proffered grounds for these asylum grants have varied from Bolivian President Evo Morales, who presented it as a “fair protest” for preventing his presidential airplane from entering the airspace of several European countries; to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who saw a need to protect “the young American” against “persecution from the empire“; to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who remained vague on the details.
None of these explanations bears much relation to international refugee law, which, though rarely an arm’s length from politics, does require some rigorous legal analysis. To be fair, each country has the right to grant asylum based on their own domestic law, which may be more generous than international refugee law standards. (Though the terms “asylum” and “refugee status” are often used interchangeably, in the United States, the former technically refers to domestic law and the latter to international law.) But given the legitimacy that the international legal standards might afford a claim like Snowden’s, it’s worth attempting a more thorough analysis of his asylum claim.