Snowden and statelessness

American whistleblower Edward Snowden is apparently still stuck in the transit area at Moscow’s¬†Sheremetyevo Airport, which suggests one should make allowances for him not being in the best of moods. Paul McGeough yesterday described his latest statement as “marked by crankiness”, although of course¬†Fairfax didn’t provide a link: here it is.

McGeough’s description is about right. Snowden has some good points to make, but his air of outrage at the United States government using normal diplomatic tools to further what it regards (wrongly, in my view) as its interests is a bit artificial. That’s what governments do.

One line, however, stands out: “Although I am convicted of nothing, [the US] has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person.”

Well, no. Not having a passport does not render you stateless; if it did, millions of Americans (and Australians, for that matter) would be in that condition. Snowden remains a US citizen, and despite his unusual position he fundamentally retains the rights and obligations of citizenship.

Depriving a US citizen of their citizenship is all but impossible, but cancelling a passport is by comparison a routine step, which all countries reserve the right to take. (If you have a look at yours you’ll probably find a notation to the effect that it remains at all times the property of the issuing government.)

The distinction matters. Statelessness is a deeply prejudicial condition, because stateless persons are outside the protection of any country. In Nazi Germany, for example, depriving Jews of their citizenship was a critical step in their persecution. Following the Second World War the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness was established to help prevent such things happening again. (Long-term readers may remember the discussion of this from the Robert Jovicic affair.)

But that isn’t Snowden’s position. The US remains responsible for him; he is entitled to its consular protection in the unlikely event that he were to seek it. And in the even more unlikely event that he were to want to return to the US, the government is obliged to facilitate his travel and to admit him if he makes it there.

Governments have no general duty to assist their citizens to roam the world; if other countries choose to let them in, that’s their business, but no-one has an unconditional right to hold a passport.

We may reasonably criticise the use that the US government is making of its powers; personally, as I’ve said before, I hope that Snowden remains free from its clutches. But it doesn’t help to pretend that its actions are more arbitrary than they really are.

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