Gimme Shelter: International Political Asylum in the Information Age

The following blog post summarizes Jacob Stafford’s note, Gimme Shelter: International Political Asylum in the Information Age (47 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 1167 (2014)). Read the full article here.

The technological progress of the early twenty-first century has not only enabled previously unimaginable intelligence-gathering capabilities, but also created the capacity to instantaneously alert countries throughout the world to their existence. On June 5, 2013, an article in the Guardian revealed highly classified information about surveillance operations being performed by the United States National Security Administration. Many more disclosures followed in the months to come.

On June 9, Edward Snowden revealed his identity as the source behind the information. Snowden was a former NSA contractor who had positioned himself in Hong Kong at the time the Guardian article was published. Fearing extradition, Snowden flew to Moscow on June 23. For the next forty days, Snowden stayed in the transit area of Sheremetyevo International Airport in a bizarre state of geopolitical purgatory. Snowden unsuccessfully requested asylum from over twenty countries during this time. Although Venezuela and Nicaragua indicated they were willing to provide him asylum, Snowden could not reach either country due to suspension of his travel documents by the United States. Russia eventually granted Snowden temporary asylum for one year. After this one-year term, Russian granted Snowden a three-year residency permit.

Snowden’s saga highlights the potential dynamics at play where an asylum applicant claims to be a political dissident. Even though there is a uniform international law of asylum, individual countries are responsible for interpreting and applying the law within their own borders. This Note, Gimme Shelter: International Political Asylum in the Information Age, uses Snowden’s circumstance to consider the current state of international political asylum within the context of domestic whistleblower regimes. Operating from a political rather than humanitarian perspective, this Note considers how the historical background of asylum law as well as modern media coverage may impact the sovereign prerogative to grant or deny asylum.

This Note offers solutions for problems presented by proclaimed political whistleblowers to the established international asylum system. It first seeks to eliminate any negative or potentially illegal behavior before the point of disclosure by recommending a range of preventative measures, including increased diplomacy and unilateral transparency. However, recognizing that prevention alone may be inadequate and difficult to verify, this Note then suggests an evolution in domestic applications of international asylum law. It encourages countries to consider domestic whistleblower statutes as a positive expression of state policy to guide their asylum adjudications in appropriate circumstances.