In a statement released through the pro-transparency organization Wikileaks, Snowden argued the United States had condemned him to a life of “the extralegal penalty of exile” as a punishment for his crimes. “The Obama administration has now adopted the strategy of using citizenship as a weapon,” the statement reads. “Although I am convicted of nothing, it has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person.”
While the veracity of the statement’s authorship is under dispute, the message behind it is worth examining given its claims of a violation of Snowden’s human rights. It is most definitely true that after his flight to Hong Kong, the United States revoked Snowden’s passport in an attempt to render him unable to travel. Counter to Snowden’s claims, however, the process for passport revocation is relatively simple and fully documented within the law.
According to federal law, the Department of State can revoke a passport when the person “would not be entitled to a new passport” under the laws surrounding their issuance. As Snowden is, in fact, the subject of “an outstanding Federal warrant of arrest for a felony” as provided under Title 22 of the U.S. Code, the U.S. pulling his ability to travel is completely legal.
What’s more, passport revocation does not qualify Snowden as stateless as claimed in his statement, as he still remains an American citizen and retains all the rights under U.S. law that status grants him. That makes him quite different from the the peoples around the world who are truly denied similar rights in the states they inhabit, even if their family has been present for generations. According to the United Nations, there are currently an estimated 12 million people around the world who actually qualify as stateless.
“Being stateless means having no legal protection or rights to participate in political processes, inadequate access to social services, poor employment prospects, little opportunity to own property or travel, and few protections against trafficking, harassment, and violence,” Refugees International says. The organization has documented the cases of thousands of people living within a state but legally not viewed as even existing. This status goes beyond even the treatment of many ethnic Kurds who, while not having a state to call their own, are at least recognized as citizens in many of the states they reside in.
Across the Middle East, a class of people known as “bidoon” — also spelled “bedoon,” “bidun,” and several other Romanicizations — exist. Literally meaning “without” in Arabic, these ethnic Arabs exist in a state of limbo, particularly in Kuwait where over 100,000 of them reside. After Kuwait’s independence in 1961, the descendants of people who entered the country before 1920 and lack proper documentation were declared to basically no longer exist. According to Refugees International, the bidoon are “refused birth certificates, public schooling, marriage certificates, and the right to peacefully assemble” within Kuwait, and many lack access to basic health care. When in 2011 the bidoon protested for equal protection under the law, the Kuwaiti government responded with force, firing rubber bullets and tear-gas at the demonstrators.
Members of the Rohingya ethnic group face similar discrimination in Myanmar, where the government stripped them of their citizenship under a 1982 law. Many within Myanmar — including human rights champion Aung San Suu Kyi — refuse to believe even in the concept of a Rohingya people. Instead, they believe that the Rohingya are all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who are frequently referred to as “Bengalis.” The subject of targeted violence that Human Rights Watch has called “ethnic cleansing,” over 100,000 Rohingya and other Muslims are currently condemned to live in make-shift refugee camps after their homes were destroyed.
Other examples exist across the globe, from Africa to the Caribbean. The U.N.’s figures don’t count the Palestinian people in its calculation, who some would argue constitute the world’s largest stateless population, which means the total number of stateless people could be even higher. While Snowden’s current situation of being forced to remain in the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow is certainly uncomfortable, it fails to reach the level of destitution and despair that many of the actual stateless people around the world have to live with each and every day.