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UNHCR drawn into the Edward Snowden fray, if only by speculation

June 22, 2013

Journalists desperate to understand how Edward Snowden will try to avoid a forced return to the United States have started to turn some attention to UNHCR’s refugee status determination processes in Hong Kong.There are now reports that UNHCR announced that it would not necessarily fast track a refugee claim by Snowden, should he actually make one.

I wouldn’t rule out UNHCR expediting a Snowden case if the Hong Kong government insisted on a fast decision, or if pressures of detention or imminent deportation became a factor. But it’s a bit absurd that anyone would even think about expediting his case simply because he is in the public eye.  There should be no VIPs at a UNHCR office.

While the media mainly have seemed interested in the process of seeking refugee protection in Hong Kong, would there actually be any substance to a Snowden refugee claim? At first blush, his case seems to be a difficult one. Is there a right in international law to leak secret government documents, especially on intelligence matters? Probably not, and thus it is difficult to construe his legal troubles in the United States as persecution within the meaning of the Refugee Convention.

But now that US authorities have accused him of espionage, he might have an argument that he is being threatened with disproportionate punishment for reason of his political opinion. When US government officials leak classified information that is more favorable to the government’s viewpoint, are they similarly punished? That would be a interesting claim to investigate, but I wouldn’t want to say yet whether it would be a valid one.

Just because someone has a weak case in law does not mean he is unsympathetic politically or morally. In the end, Snowden’s best bet is probably political (i.e. winning favor from the Chinese Government) or dependent on the interpretation of Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the U.S., which makes an exception for political offenses.


Nevertheless, the basic situation here raises some questions about UNHCR and American asylum-seekers.

The United States is UNHCR’s most important donor, and is a critical UNHCR  partner to such an extent that the deputy High Commissioner for Refugees is by tradition an American. So let’s say, just hypothetically, that an American citizen with a plausible refugee claim were to find himself depending on UNHCR’s RSD systems while also at the center of a diplomatic storm. If UNHCR frustrated American objectives by accepting the refugee claims – and thus also accused the United States of violating someone’s human rights – there would be be a real danger of anger from American officials. It would hardly be surprising if member of Congress began threatening to cut U.S. support for UNHCR.

What safeguards does UNHCR have in place to guarantee an impartial RSD adjudication process, shielded from any political pressure? That question might be more interesting than a refugee claim that, as far as we know, has not even been filed.

  1. Farhan Mall permalink
    June 23, 2013 3:40 am

    Very interesting situation, I am eager to see what happens next.


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