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Snowden at The Hague

STOCKHOLM – After spending weeks in the international transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has been granted one-year asylum in Russia. But the fugitive whistleblower’s story will probably not end there. If Russia refuses to extend Snowden's asylum a year from now, the next frontier at which he appears may well be Russia’s border with Norway – one of the few countries he may actually be able to access.

Such a move would initiate an intricate and risky political game – one that Norway’s government will have to navigate carefully if it is to avoid disastrous consequences. With a clear understanding of the game’s basic rules and key players, Norway’s leaders can devise an effective strategy.

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To be sure, Norway already dismissed an asylum application from Snowden, because Norwegian law prohibits the acceptance of such requests that are filed from abroad. On the border, however, matters are different.

The Dublin Regulation – an agreement among European Union countries, Iceland, and Norway – states that the first signatory country that an asylum seeker enters is responsible for processing the claim. So, if Snowden arrives at Russia’s Norwegian border, it may well be up to Norway’s government to decide his fate.

International law offers some justification for granting Snowden asylum. Indeed, many observers have argued that his predicament satisfies Article 33 of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that no country “shall expel or return a refugee…to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This includes, “the threat of torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

While the US has historically treated whistleblowers fairly well, many consider the punishment meted out to Bradley Manning – an Army private sentenced to a maximum of 90 years (reduced from 136) for delivering classified documents to the whistleblowing Web site WikiLeaks – to be inhumane and degrading. And Snowden may well face a similar fate, given that the US has already filed charges against him under the 1917 Espionage Act – the same law under which Manning was tried.

But Norway also has a responsibility to the US, a close ally with which it has an extradition treaty. A decision not to honor the treaty would likely be met with strong opposition from the many Norwegians who respect the US government and its strong democratic traditions, and from those who fear the repercussions.

Fortunately, there is also a third option: Norway’s government could turn Snowden’s case over to the International Court of Justice in the Hague – an institution well-versed in handling even the most politically charged legal dilemmas. Few Norwegians, if any, would object to allowing Snowden to remain in Norway until the ICJ’s decision.

This course of action would spare Norway’s government from having to choose between fulfilling its responsibilities under international law and safeguarding its relationship with the US. At the same time, it would offer the US an important opportunity to prove to the world, by pledging to respect the ICJ’s decision, that it remains committed to the principles of international law. That is an outcome everyone can support.