It seems that the former NSA employee Edward Snowden remains in the transit zone of Moscow airport. At least, that´s what President Putin said a couple of days ago in a press conference in Finland. Putin claimed to be as surprised as any other, and argued that Snowden was just a “transit passenger” and therefore didn´t need a visa or any other document. The Russian President also said that, since Snowden “has not crossed” the Russian border and he “has not committed any crime” on Russian soil, there are no grounds for prosecution in Russia or for deportation to the US, with which Russia has no extradition treaty. Considering Snowden has reportedly applied for asylum from Ecuador, when the Russian Premier was asked about the similarities between his case and the one of Julian Assange, Putin responded with another question: “Just like Snowden, (Assange) considers himself a rights advocate and fights for sharing information. Ask yourself: should or should not people like these be extradited to be later put to jail?”
If we didn´t know anything at all about Russia, we might even think that this country must be a devoted promoter of human rights worldwide. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Should a Russian Snowden dare to do half of what Snowden did (uncovering a massive secret surveillance programme run by the national security agency of his home country), Putin’s reaction wouldn´t have been any softer than that of the Obama administration.
Russia is not a beacon of human rights and Snowden’s case doesn´t change a thing of his poor domestic human rights record. However, unwillingly Putin may be useful to the cause of human rights. Amnesty International has demanded the US to put an end to its campaign to hunt Snowden down. Nobody must be charged for disclosing information about human rights violations, because such disclosures are protected under the umbrella of the freedom of expression. Furthermore, according to the international peremptory norm of non-refoulement, no one should be extradited to a country where there is a substantial risk of ill-treatment.
With his attitude Putin is becoming an annoying inconvenience for the US, and that is his sole motivation. Snowden’s case is a very telling example of how human rights sometimes belong to the realm of tactics rather than principles. Regional and global superpowers are often less passionate about human rights than about the zero-sum calculations that lead to the maximisation of their power. Snowden is a delicacy for Putin’s realist battle versus the US. However, this case poses many challenging questions to the human rights community. Human rights activists must understand the logic behind global superpowers’ strategic analysis, within which there might be room for human rights. In fact, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent rise of international human rights law took place at the height of the Cold War, a positive development that would seem counterintuitive if human rights were only a matter of values and principles.
The flip side of the coin is that when human rights are a matter of tactics, their role becomes eminently instrumental since they are only the means for the fulfilment of a spurious goal. One of the greatest challenges for human rights advocacy consists in defending human rights in a stage full of actors that will only support you as long as it enhances their relative position vis-à-vis their opponents. In other words, the question is how to do good in a world that isn´t.
This was a critical issue half a century ago, but it remains so at a critical time in history when new powers emerge in the global political arena. The extension of the idea of human rights occurred in a time of Western hegemony, which doesn´t mean that human rights were necessarily a Western idea and, even less so, that Western countries had an impeccable record on human rights. We are now witnessing a shift of global power away from the West. As said in a previous post on this matter, we need to think critically about the future of human rights in a new world where Europe and the US simply do not matter as much in international relations. Ted Piccone argued in 2011 that new rising democracies so far have not consistently supported democracy and human rights abroad. Recently David Petrasek made the case that new global powers are unlikely to play by the old rules (via UN, for example). The future of human rights in a new world with new actors, new demands but similar concerns is uncertain. In this context, initiatives such as Open Global Rights are very necessary to think critically about the challenges that lie ahead of us.
Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Photograph: Guardian