Edward Snowden Aslyum: Will the NSA Whistle-blower Head to Iceland?


Following news that NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden has checked out of his hotel in Hong Kong and gone to an unknown location, speculation is mounting as to where he might seek asylum. Although Snowden is still believed to be in Hong Kong, there are concerns that his choice of the region as a place to potentially avoid the reach of the U.S. government may not have been a good one given the longstanding cooperation between Hong Kong and U.S. authorities. Possible countries that have been floated as locations where Snowden might seek asylum include Russia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Iceland.

While Russian officials have said that they would be willing to consider an asylum request from Snowden if he made one, the move seems little more than an attempt to antagonize the U.S. and would not be an attractive option given Russia's own treatment of who speak out against the government. Iceland, however, would seem like a much more obvious and fitting choice.

When interviewed by the Guardian in Hong Kong, Snowden said that his predisposition was to "seek asylum in a country with shared values" and that the only thing he could do is "sit here and hope the Hong Kong government does not deport me." His choice of Hong Kong, however, may not have been a wise choice given recent comments from Hong Kong authorities, lawyers, and human rights advocates. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., and although the U.S. has not issued a request for Snowden's extradition, it has started a criminal investigation into his actions. And Hong Kong legislator and former Security Secretary Regina Ip has labelled Snowden's choice of location as "being based on unfortunate ignorance" given that the authorities there "work very closely with U.S. authorities." The Wall Street Journal also quotes one lawyer who has worked on extradition cases as saying that "Hong Kong is the worst place in the world for any person to avoid extradition, with the possible exception of [to] the United Kingdom." In addition, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Peter Bouckaert, has pointed out that Hong Kong authorities have cooperated with the U.S. in previous rendition cases, and that there is no reason to believe that they would not do so again.

Snowden has said that the country which most encompasses the shared values he would seek in a potential asylum location is Iceland, noting that "they stood up for people over internet freedom." Indeed activists in Iceland, led by the MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Pirate Party and an active supporter of WikiLeaks, are investigating the possibility of how Snowden might gain asylum in Iceland. Through the International Modern Media Institute (IMMI), an Icelandic initiative designed to strengthen freedom of speech in the country, Jónsdóttir said that "We feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability." Although the organization has begun making inquiries as to how Snowden might secure asylum in Iceland, there is only so much they can do without him actually requesting asylum, which he has not yet done.

Icelandic officials have already said that Snowden must be in Iceland to apply for asylum, but some commentators have raised the possibility that another European country "might be inclined to turn him over to the U.S. during a layover" on his way to Iceland. Furthermore, although Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson has put his name to an IMMI initiative designed to protect freedom of expression, it has not become law yet, and Iceland has a long-standing extradition treaty with the U.S. According to Jónsdóttir, Iceland's interior minister has also indicated his desire strengthen ties with the U.S. Even Jónsdóttir has admitted that Iceland is "not the best location" for Snowden to seek asylum. On the plus side for Snowden is the fact that despite the treaty, Iceland has never extradited a U.S. citizen back to the U.S., as well as the country's reputation for defending media freedoms, and the support he appears to have there.

Ultimately all of this remains speculation given that Snowden has yet to actually seek asylum anywhere, but it does highlight the difficulties that whistle-blowers face. Perhaps what we need, Jónsdóttir mused, is "to create like a whistle-blower freedom boat somewhere to pick up refugees." Or, as George Donnelly argues, the creation of a whistle-blower protection program. Whatever the solution, whistle-blowers must be afforded more protections given the invaluable public service that they carry out.