LONDON – What is one to make of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s “reluctant” appeal for temporary asylum in Russia?
It’s easy to admire Snowden for what he has revealed about the vast extent of U.S. and U.K. spying. It is easy, too, to sympathize with the predicament he has found himself in after making his revelations and wishing, understandably, to avoid decades in prison. Indeed, contrary to what some have argued, there is no “rule” that states whistleblowers should voluntarily surrender to the prospect of a long jail sentence.
The consequence is that Snowden has found himself stripped of his passport by the U.S. government that seeks him and has been subjected to a harshly applied international flight ban as Washington has sought to block his travel to a friendly South American country.
In these circumstances, his desire for temporary refuge in Moscow — where he is trapped in any case — makes perfect sense.
Yet there is a “but.” You can hold all of these ideas as true, yet still feel deeply uncomfortable about the manner of Snowden’s request for asylum, not least his praise for Russia. Perhaps it was no more than being naive, but to list Putin’s Russia, as Snowden did, among his little list of countries for “being the first to stand against human rights violations” suggests a dangerous moral relativism.
Far from being a champion, Russia’s record on human rights violations is a grim one. Snowden’s meeting with human rights groups in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport was preceded by another piece of human rights news — the posthumous conviction of whisteblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured in a Russian prison and denied medical attention that might have saved his life.
Amnesty, whose representative was at the Snowden meeting, had earlier announced the latest murder of a journalist in Russia, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, who was killed by an unknown gunman in the North Caucasus region after his name appeared on a death list.
There have been other recent reminders of what happens to those who criticize the Kremlin and Putin. Two members of the punk band Pussy Riot remain in jail. Indeed, on July 13 — almost unremarked — it was reported that Maria Alyokhina, one of the two imprisoned musicians, was being transferred from the labor camp in the Perm region, where she has been serving two years for hooliganism for performing a song, to another prison in central Russia.
A new trial opened last month into those accused of murdering journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, though few expect those behind her murder ever to face justice.
A cursory glance of Amnesty’s list of recent alerts on Russia from the past two months makes very ugly reading, revealing the continuing assault on gay rights inside the country, the use of torture to extract confessions and the pursuit through the courts of nongovernmental associations.
If that is too abstract, consider the treatment of Tanya Lokshina, the Human Rights Watch researcher, one of those invited to meet Snowden last Friday and who tweeted the whistleblower’s picture. In 2012, the then pregnant Lokshina, who has been a prominent human rights campaigner for more than a decade, received a series of text messages threatening both her and her unborn child.
Commenting on the affair, Human Rights Watch’s executive director, Ken Roth, said: “The climate for human rights advocacy in Russia is as bad as we’ve seen in 20 years. Russia’s international partners should make clear that the surest route to pariah status is to reinstate the bleak human rights environment of the Soviet era.”
Or take the case of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who this week will learn whether he is to be jailed for his activities.
Why all this matters is simple.
Snowden has built his argument on the moral imperative for leaking the NSA document trove increasingly in terms of human rights, not least relating to privacy.
He has justified his actions by invoking one of the Nuremberg principles — that it is the duty of an individual to break the law of his own state if international law is being broken — and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While that is a compelling argument, what is less convincing is his suggestion that Russia is in the forefront of the fight by the “powerless” against the “powerful.”
Instead, in providing a public relations coup for Putin, Snowden has provided cover for a gross and serial human rights-violating state. Even then, it is not hard to imagine the circumstances how this came about. To sympathize again: exhausted, confused, perhaps, even under pressure, Snowden must feel he has been left by Washington with nowhere else to turn.
But that cannot change the fact that the comments he made on July 12 — uttered naively or under duress — still have consequences. That is because Snowden’s well-developed and credible defense for leaking the NSA documents has been that, as a citizen and as a moral being, he could not tolerate the abuses he witnessed and was compelled to break the law — a powerful appeal to natural justice.
In appealing to the universality of human rights values, while appearing to apply his criticism of human rights abuse selectively, that justification, sadly, now rests on shaky ground.
Peter Beaumont is foreign affairs editor at the Observer and has written widely on human rights issues.