It is clear that the entrapment and forced landing in Austria of the official airplane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales was the work of the US, which was obviously behind the decision by France and Portugal to deny air rights to the flight, and which also was obviously behind the Austrian government’s demand to be allowed to search the jet after it landed. After all, those countries have no interest themselves in capturing US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is only Obama’s and the NSA’s quarry. (A Spanish official said Spain was “told” Snowden was on the plane but wouldn’t say by what country. Let’s guess who would do that!)
So given that the US was behind the Morales “kidnap” outrage, it is worth examining how the US has historically viewed the legal status of heads of state under international law and custom when they are traveling.
In 2004, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (New York) ruled that Robert Mugabe, the corrupt and brutal leader of Zimbabwe, enjoyed “absolute immunity” while inside the US on a visit to New York. The decision stemmed from 2001, when a group of citizens of Zimbabwe sought to have Mugabe arrested in New York on charges of “extrajudicial killing, torture, terrorism, rape, beatings and other acts of violence and destruction.” A month earlier, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Chicago), reached a similar conclusion in a case involving then Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
The US government had filed briefs in both those cases arguing that both Jiang and Mugabe (as well as Mugabe’s foreign minister, who was traveling with him), had absolute immunity as traveling heads of state. Interestingly, the US brief, in addition to citing the Vienna Convention, cited the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), signed into law by Pres. Gerald Ford, which among other things makes sovereign leaders absolutely immune. Ironically, that law was successfully used by by leaders of Saudi Arabia to convince US courts to immunize them against civil suits filed against them by victims of the 9-11 attacks, who had claimed Saudi leaders had funded the attacks.
No surprise that the US would want sovereign immunity, given that the head of state of the US at the time of the court proceedings and the Appellate Court hearing, George W. Bush, and his vice president Dick Cheney, were already themselves guilty of serious war crimes and crimes against humanity for their illegal invasion of Iraq, their authorization of kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and torture, and their financing of acts of terrorism. They understandably wanted to establish that nobody should even think about trying to embarrass them with an arrest warrant for these crimes during any trips abroad.
Given that it was the French who first caved in to US pressure to block the flight home from Russia to Bolivia of President Morales, it is interesting to note too that a the French Supreme Court, in 2001, ruled in a case involving an effort to charge Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafy with the downing of a US civilian aircraft over Lockerbee, Scotland, that heads of state have absolute immunity from prosecution while in office, except for universally accepted crime of genocide.
This makes the treatment of Bolivia’s President Morales, and the behavior of the European countries involved — France, Portugal and Spain initially for trapping Morales in mid-air and forcing him to land in Austria, Austria and Italy for trapping him in Austria and Austria for insisting on searching his presidential plane, and Russia for not protesting in the most forceful way the insulting treatment of a head of state that Russia had just hosted in a summit meeting — particularly outrageous.
Far from being guilty of any crime, Morales was detained by the actions of the US, France, Portugal, Spain and Austria simply because the US wants to capture Snowden, and thought Morales might be transporting him on his plane back to asylum in Bolivia. But had he been doing so, it would have been entirely within the rights of the president of Bolivia, who as a head of state could legally carry anything he wanted in his plane, whether a petitioner for sanctuary or a load of cocaine. (The US has long abused diplomatic immunity to ship contraband like weapons for use in various coup attempts–Chile in 1973, for instance — in so-called “diplomatic pouches,” which are exempt from customs searches.)
The US of course, is the most egregious offender in this latest saga. In its desperate effort to snatch Snowden, it is trashing the Vienna Convention of 1961 and a tradition of diplomatic immunity for heads of state that is of much more ancient origin.
The US does this not because it is legal, but because it can. American military and economic power allow the US government to brazenly ignore international law and custom because at least for the present no foreign power would dare to arrest or detain a US leader in the manner that Morales was detained and forced to allow his aircraft to be searched like a common criminal suspect. That situation could, of course change in future years, at which point Washington’s role in this incident will surely be brought up in some court.
Meanwhile, though, the leaders of smaller states with less clout than the US, from France and Germany to the likes of Austria, Italy, Spain, and the nations of South America, need to contemplate a new world in which their leaders could be summarily detained, humiliated, served with criminal or civil complaints or otherwise harassed while on official state visits, with the Morales case cited as an example.
Little wonder that the leaders of many Latin American countries, long used to being humiliated by the US, have been belatedly rising to the defense of Bolivia’s president, only days after they had accommodatingly declined to offer Snowden asylum.
One has to hope that they will rethink their earlier cowardice in refusing to offer asylum to Snowden, who is still trapped in the stateless limbo of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, because of Russia’s own chickenshit cowardice about granting him some kind of at least temporary residency permit while he seeks some permanent asylum from US prosecution as a “traitor.”
Meanwhile, France, Germany. Italy, Spain, and Austria, which have so shamelessly caved in to US pressure, should be ashamed of themselves. So should countries like Ireland, Finland, and other European countries which have pretended that they “might” consider an offer of asylum, but for the “difficulty” that poor Snowden’s US passport has been cancelled by Washington, so he cannot travel to their soil to make an application.
What rot! First off, as I wrote earlier, the mere fact that the US, violating its own laws, cancelled the citizenship and passport of a native-born American by executive decree without even a court hearing, doesn’t mean his passport, which he still possesses, cannot be recognized as a valid travel document by another country. It still has his photo identity as before. It still has blank pages able to accept a visa application, and it still has an expiration date that shows it to be valid. Since there is no international data base for passports, which are the property of each state that issues them, there would be no international file at a nation’s border stating whether a passport from another nation is currently valid. Snowden would certainly be stopped were he to try to use his cancelled passport to attempt, for some crazy reason, to re-enter the US, but as far as going to another country, it should work fine. Unless, that is, the country in question is under the thumb of the US.
Here’s hoping President Morales and the whole Bolivian people, with the backing of most of Latin America, are angry enough to take on the US Empire and give Snowden asylum protection. It would be a beautiful act of conscience by a small historically exploited nation against the official hypocrisy and gutlessness of Europe’s and most of Latin America’s leaders, and the lazy unconcern of the peoples of supposedly democratic Europe and the US, to see him welcomed there.