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Snowden extradition case: A lesson in consular diplomacy

Published on 27 August 2013
Updated on 10 April 2024

The extradition case of Edward Snowden, a former consultant with the US National Security Administration, received global attention. It generated more heat than light, as the top leadership in the United States attempted to browbeat leadership in other countries, like Hong Kong, China, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Russia. The Snowden extradition case thus brought into focus the importance of consular diplomacy and the role that it plays in the larger context of international relations. It is no longer at the low end of diplomacy, as could be seen from the importance attached to it; it is now at the highest level of political leadership. This was one of the aspects that was, however, missing from the media coverage of the case, as it noted its adverse fall out.

Let’s try to understand how the ‘extradition’ process works, as this was missing in the debate on this issue. Extradition is an internationally accepted procedure. It is triggered when a criminal takes refuge in one state, but is wanted by other states for trial for a crime committed in those states. To ensure speedier extradition of criminals, many countries resort to bilateral extradition treaties, which spell out judicial and other procedural requirements before an extradition request is made.

We have to remember that extradition is essentially a legal process. However, unlike other legal processes, it comes with a high degree of political involvement. First, at the time of initial request, it is the state that make a request to another state, through normal diplomatic channels. The judicial process starts thereafter, when the requested state makes a determination that the case is fit to stand trial for extradition.

How has the extradition process played out in the Snowden case? The whole process was turned topsy-turvy, as there was greater stress on political one-upmanship, rather than on the pursuit of the judicial process. In making its request for extradition to Hong Kong and China, the US government did not follow the procedures, as the request was prematurely made without instituting a criminal case. It was further compounded, when the wrong first name was given for Snowden. This provided an alibi to the Hong Kong authorities in allowing Snowden to exit to Russia. In fact, the USA was seeking Snowden’s deportation, a matter which falls under a state’s national jurisdiction, but decided to make the request for extradition, to give it an international character.

The handling of the Snowden case makes us reflect on the importance of following the correct procedures. Would it have made a difference if the USA had not resorted to arm twisting? Was it a case of deliberate by-passing standard procedures on extradition or was it a deliberate attempt to ignore them? Whatever the USA’s motivation, we have to remember that many an extradition case falls flat, as there is more hype on ‘political’ rather than ‘legal’ aspects. To successfully pursue such cases, a good understanding of the way in which consular diplomacy operates is essential.

What we can learn from the handling of this case is the need for greater understanding of how consular diplomacy operates. It is a much neglected discipline, but becoming more and more essential in any state’s dealings with its citizens in this globalised world. To meet these requirements, a number of academic institutes are offering facilities for learning this discipline.  

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