Why did Hong Kong reject the United States' request to arrest Edward Snowden and hold him for extradition? And why does it now appear that Russia, too, will ignore U.S. pleas to expel and return the man who leaked information about the American government's systematic monitoring of cellphone calls and Internet usage? This breakdown in international cooperation is worrisome, and so too is Mr. Snowden's failure to acknowledge that the countries prepared to give him asylum are no friends of Internet freedom and free speech.
The U.S. has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and numerous Americans have been sent home from the Chinese territory to face charges in their homeland. For reasons still unexplained, Hong Kong officials said a request from the U.S. to arrest and hold Mr. Snowden until his extradition was settled wasn't properly made, giving Mr. Snowden the opportunity to flee to Russia. We don't know what was wrong with an otherwise routine arrest request made, and granted, many times in the past, but we do know that Hong Kong officials linked Mr. Snowden's departure to reports that the U.S. government was spying on Hong Kong computers.
In Russia, it appeared on Monday that Mr. Snowden, who is charged with theft of U.S. government property as well as two espionage-related charges, was able to arrive unhindered. His whereabouts were unknown in the hours after landing; officials there were saying nothing on Monday morning. Russia under Vladimir Putin has been a deliberate irritant of the West, whether in Syria or Iran, and it is a safe bet that it will not come to the aid of U.S. in this matter.
As a result of Mr. Snowden's successful flight from U.S. justice, an important international convention has been compromised. The mutual aid provided between countries to return indicted criminals, whether by extradition treaty or not, is a critical part of every country's justice system. If criminals can simply flee across a border and be assured that extradition requests will be ignored without a proper hearing, it will become more difficult for every nation to prosecute its wanted suspects.
As well, Mr. Snowden has become a pawn in the hands of governments that have little to no respect for Internet freedom and freedom of speech. China and Russia – countries where critics of the government face harassment, imprisonment and death – have already demonstrated that they are happy to use Mr. Snowden to embarrass the U.S. administration; no doubt Cuba, Ecuador or Venezuela will put him to the same use should he wind up in one of those countries.
Wherever he finds asylum, Mr. Snowden should make sure he is not critical of his host government's policies. The United States was gathering data under a dubious pretense that deserved exposure, but it was doing so in an effort to thwart terrorist attacks, and its citizens have recourse to a robust justice system and constitutional protections. Mr. Snowdon's protectors have more nefarious reasons for looking into the lives of their citizens – citizens that have few, if any, protections.