Edward Snowden and the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation

Edward Snowden has been sitting in Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow since June and several blog posts (including one from this author) have been  discussing and analyzing the situation from an international legal and political perspective. (See the post from Richard Silvagni: “Snowden, Hong Kong and China”, mine “The Saga of Edward Snowden” and Patrick Dowdle’s “Stuck at Moscow Airport, Whistleblower Snowed In” ).

Yesterday, I came across an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that mentioned the Chicago Convention in relation to Snowden’s possible movement out of Russia.  While the publication did not explain what exactly what the Chicago Convention is , but rather linked to a Wikipedia article, I believe it is important to discuss how this international agreement relates to the saga at hand.

The Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation was first signed in 1944 in Chicago, Illinois. The convention went into effect in 1947, when enough States signed, and 191 States, including all the members (sans 3) of the United Nations, are signatories. With the convention came the creation of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the U.N. The convention has been updated and revised six times since its original form.

Two basic freedoms are guaranteed to member States: The freedom to fly over another country without landing and the freedom to stop for repairs or fuel in a country without taking on cargo or passengers.  The cornerstone of the Convention is set out in Article I: “The contracting States recognize every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over airspace above its territory.” While most people may believe a State’s borders only encompass land area, many legal complications arise over infringement of a State’s boundaries in the air or on the sea. Art. I is affirming that each nation has an absolute right to control the air above its land. Interesting to note, in Art. 3, is that this convention only regulates civilian aircraft and does not apply to government or military planes.

What does this mean for Snowden? Think back to early July when the President of Bolivia Evo Morales’ plane, a government aircraft, was denied access to the airspace above France, Spain and Portugal on his way home from Russia and he was forced to land in Vienna. The reason (if you read between the political lines)? Snowden was suspected of being onboard. The Guardian’s article, critical to say the least, notes several past instances where for political reasons, the U.S. or its allies has grounded flights to capture and detain enemies. They point to these as reasons why Snowden may avoid Cuba, its proximity too close to Florida for comfort. This must be balanced with President Obama’s assertion that he is “not going to scramble jets to get to a 29 year-old hacker.” What also must be seen is that other nations-whether its Spain, France or Russia- have secrets themselves they rather not be blasted all over the world. It is in their best interest to stop people like Snowden.

While the U.S.’ track record on the intersection between international law and enemies may not be the brightest, a blatant disregard for the Chicago Convention, or pressure on other nation’s to abuse their sovereignty, is not the best path to go down especially in a world with a 24-hr news cycle.

Where Snowden ultimately ends up is still up in the air (pun intended). What I will end with is the preamble to the Chicago Convention: “WHEREAS the future development of international civil aviation can greatly help to create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples o f t h e world, yet its abuse can become a threat to the general security.”

The Chicago Convention on International Aviation

The Guardian UK 

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