Their initiative adds to the diplomatic headache facing the U.S., on top of tensions in bilateral relations with China and Russia arising from the Snowden affair.
Backed by its allies in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, the Bolivian government says a “gross violation of international law” occurred and is demanding that the international community ensure that the diversion of President Evo Morales’ jet in European airspace early this month does “not go unpunished.”
Bolivia’s written complaint, in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon copied to every U.N. member-state, invokes a specific U.N. General Assembly agenda item – number 69, “Promotion and protection of human rights” – signaling that plans are likely underway to draft a resolution to condemn the U.S. and European governments.
Any such resolution would pass easily: The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a bloc of developing nations which together make up just under two-thirds of the total General Assembly membership, quickly threw its weight behind Bolivia’s complaint, expressing “deep concern over the flagrant violation of the diplomatic immunity” of a head of state.
NAM’s current chairman is Iran, a close ally of the left-wing group in Latin America who comprise the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a bloc set up by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2004 as a vehicle for his “21st century socialism” vision.
Washington’s relations with the ALBA countries have long been testy, and the Snowden issue has provided them with the opportunity to tweak America’s nose by offering the fugitive asylum, while also railing against “imperialism.”
Bolivia’s letter to the U.N. attributed the treatment of Morales to “his political positions, which are certainly inconvenient to global powers that believe they still wield imperial authority over the nations of the world.”
Morales was flying home after a visit to Moscow when, his government says, several European countries denied the flight permission to cross their airspace, compelling it to land in Vienna for an unscheduled 14-hour layover.
The denials reportedly were the result of mistaken suspicion that Snowden – who has been in a Moscow airport’s transit zone for weeks, trying to find a country to grant him asylum – was onboard. Morales accused the Europeans of acting under pressure from Washington.
At the time, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to confirm or deny whether the countries concerned had been asked to deny the Bolivian plane airspace.
She did confirm that “we have been in contact with a range of countries across the world who had any chance of having Mr. Snowden land or even transit through their countries, but I’m not going to outline when those were or what those countries have been.”
The former intelligence analyst, who emerged in Hong Kong in early June and has exposed secret NSA surveillance programs to various media outlets, is wanted in the U.S. on felony charges.
He was charged last month with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and conveying classified communications information to an unauthorized person.
The Bolivian government’s initiative at the U.N. shows it is not planning to let the matter rest. Earlier it summoned the ambassadors of France, Spain and Portugal to explain why their countries denied Morales overflight permission.
It also convened a meeting of the Organization of American States’ permanent council to protest, and five ALBA ambassadors met with Ban in New York last week to protest. Ban’s spokesman said afterwards the secretary-general said he understood their concerns, and that it was important to avoid such incidents from happening in the future.
The U.N.’s top human rights official waded into the Snowden case on Friday. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said it raised concerns that surveillance programs without adequate safeguards could impact on individual rights.
“People need to be confident that their private communications are not being unduly scrutinized by the state,” she said. “The right to privacy, the right to access to information and freedom of expression are closely linked.”
Pillay also said all countries must “respect the internationally guaranteed right to seek asylum” and make their determinations on the matter “in accordance with their international legal obligations.”
And she cited another U.N. human rights official as saying that “whistleblowers should firstly be protected from legal reprisals and disciplinary action when disclosing unauthorized information.”
On Friday, Russian authorities allowed Snowden to meet with human rights activists at the airport, where he announced his intention to seek asylum in Russia, at least temporarily until able to go one of the ALBA countries that have offered him asylum.
The U.S. government criticized Russia for facilitating what it called a “propaganda platform” for a fugitive from justice.
“He’s not a whistleblower. He’s not a human rights activist,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a press briefing. “He’s wanted in a series of serious criminal charges brought in the eastern district of Virginia and the United States.”