FP Explainer

How Do You Flee a Country Without Leaving It?

How Do You Flee a Country Without Leaving It?

As Edward Snowden enters his 10th full day in legal limbo — stowed away, at least according to Russian officials, in an international terminal in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport — his options for escaping are shrinking rapidly. As of July 2, he had fruitlessly applied to 21 countries for asylum, with some rebuffing him outright, others inviting him to apply in-country, and only Bolivia and Venezuela demonstrating a flicker of interest in inviting the NSA leaker to their shores (in fact, a plane bringing Bolivian President Evo Morales home from Russia was rerouted to Austria on Tuesday on the suspicion that it was carrying Snowden — accusations Bolivian officials denied). With a canceled U.S. passport in hand, Snowden will have heaps of trouble getting a visa to travel to any country that might offer him sanctuary. And while he could make a run for an embassy in Moscow, he would have to first formally enter Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has pledged to not grant Snowden asylum unless he stops leaking U.S. intelligence (Snowden has since rescinded his request for shelter in Russia).

So if you’re Edward Snowden, how do you possibly make your way to a safe haven without stepping on a commercial flight? Here are five daring moves Snowden could make.

Hop in a Diplomatic Pouch

There are two documented cases of hiding a person in a diplomatic pouch — sealed parcels sent between governments and diplomatic missions that are not subject to search and seizure by customs officials — and neither of them was successful. Mordechai Louk, who in 1962 began spying for Egypt after fleeing debts and military service in Israel, was abducted two years later by his Egyptian handlers, who suspected him of being a Mossad double agent. Louk was drugged during a meeting in Italy, packed into a crate labeled "Diplomatic bag — do not open," and loaded onto a flight to Egypt — that is, until a baggage handler heard him waking in the crate. Louk was extradited to Israel, where he was tried and imprisoned for 11 years. Twenty years later, Nigerian military leaders, having just risen to power in a coup, pursued the extrajudicial rendition of the previous government’s transportation minister. Agents kidnapped the minister, Umaru Dikko, in London and placed him in a crate, along with a doctor to monitor his sedation. British customs officials had the packages opened after noticing a strong "medical smell" and claimed that the crates were improperly labeled as diplomatic pouches. (The liberated Dikko continued to live in Britain for the next decade.)

The laws governing diplomatic pouches are codified in Article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention, which states clearly: "The diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained" (breaching that rule has precipitated crises in bilateral relations from time to time). But the bag is only to be used for "correspondence relating to the mission and its functions." The 40 kilograms of cocaine smuggled into Italy in Ecuadorean diplomatic pouches last year, for example, was not covered, nor was the rifle smuggled out of the Libyan embassy in London after the shooting of a British policewoman during protests against Muammar al-Qaddafi in 1984. (It’s unclear if the Cuban cigars Winston Churchill received by diplomatic courier during World War II were covered, as they were delivered before the Vienna Convention was written.) The problem with putting Edward Snowden in a diplomatic pouch: He’s not exactly "official correspondence." It’s a no-go.

Assume the Role of Diplomatic Courier

The Vienna Convention has another potential loophole: "The diplomatic courier, who shall be provided with an official document indicating his status and the number of packages constituting the diplomatic bag, shall be protected by the receiving State in the performance of his functions. He shall enjoy person inviolability and shall not be liable to any form of arrest and detention." The convention continues, "The sending State or the mission may designate couriers ad hoc."

So why not just have the Venezuelan ambassador to Moscow hand Snowden a diplomatic pouch and ask him to carry it to Caracas? Snowden would, in theory, be protected as an officially designated courier until he delivered the pouch, at which point he could apply for asylum in Venezuela.

There’s a catch: "Diplomatic couriers still require visas," Peter Spiro, professor of law at Temple University and a blogger at Opinio Juris, tells FP. "I think it would be unusual to have a non-national designated as a courier. This wouldn’t fly."

Flee to an Embassy

If a government will take him, Snowden could try to make a mad dash to an embassy in Moscow. Embassies have become modern-day sanctuaries for many asylum-seekers because of their legal inviolability — it’s what has protected people as diverse as Chen Guangcheng, Sam LaHood, and Julian Assange. Getting there, though, is a problem. It’s 20 miles from Sheremetyevo Airport to the Venezuelan embassy in Moscow, and a couple miles farther to the Bolivian embassy. And while a diplomatic vehicle sent by an embassy can’t be searched legally, it can still be stopped. (The BBC pointed out this problem when Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy last year.)

Even if Snowden gets to an embassy, that may not be enough to apply for asylum. Contrary to popular belief, embassies are not technically foreign soil. As my colleagues Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating noted last year, "What this means in practice is that once someone seeks refuge in an embassy, the foreign government often enters into negotiations with the host government about the fugitive’s fate." Snowden could hole up in an embassy, as many have done before him, but he’d be in more or less the same predicament as he’s in at the airport terminal.

Get ‘Diplomatic Asylum’

Without traveling to a specific country and applying for asylum from within that country’s formal territory, Snowden could be granted "diplomatic asylum." Ecuador conferred this status on Julian Assange in August 2012 to try to shelter him from extradition. The problem? The United States doesn’t recognize diplomatic asylum.

"The United States is not a party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law," the office of then-State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement after Ecuador granted the WikiLeaks founder asylum. The United States, for its part, only grants asylum to people in the country, in accordance with the Refugee Act of 1980, and has been cautious to avoid labeling instances in which it has protected political dissidents abroad as asylum.

Hitch a Ride on a Foreign Leader’s Plane

Snowden would have a hard time getting to Venezuela, but what if Venezuela came to him? Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was in Moscow for an energy conference this week — could he just spirit Snowden away with him? Possibly. Maduro has been vague about whether he’d consider plucking Snowden from Sheremetyevo Airport. He told RT on Tuesday that he has not yet received Snowden’s request for asylum; when asked at a press conference if Snowden would be coming back with him to Caracas, he reportedly laughed. "What I think I will take are many accords that we are going to sign with Russia and lots of Russian investments in petroleum and gas," Maduro said. "That is what we are going to take to Venezuela." But the Venezuelan leader also downplayed the importance of Snowden’s location. "We should not think about how Snowden would escape Moscow airport but to analyze what information this young person provided," he told RT. "If in the next days this person leaves the airport by plane or by boat or however, this is not so important" (Sheremetyevo is landlocked, so a boat is probably out of the question).

If Bolivian officials are to be believed, Portugal, France, and Italy took this scenario seriously enough that they refused to permit Evo Morales’s plane from entering their airspace on Tuesday — out of concern that Snowden was on board. The Bolivian president was returning from the same conference that brought Maduro to Moscow. 

Of course, Snowden’s biggest stumbling block in each of these scenarios is Russia’s enforcement of international law. And in Russia, there’s no guarantee that those laws will be enforced. If Vladimir Putin decides Snowden should be someplace other than Sheremetyevo, chances are, he will be.