Edward Snowden Just Got a New Passport (But Good Luck Using It)

When fugitive NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's United States passport was cancelled on June 23rd, he was left stranded in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Today, Snowden announced he is seeking temporary asylum in Russia in order to plan a possible escape to Latin America. But maybe there's an easier way? Snowden now has a brand-new replacement passport, if he can get it: He has been issued a World Passport, backed by no country but good (its creators say) in nearly all of them.

Unfortunately for Snowden, the World Passport is more powerful in theory than in practice. It was bestowed upon Snowden by the World Service Authority, a tiny, D.C.-based non-profit peace organization dedicated to promulgating the idea of "world citizenship," a utopian ideal in which humanity transcends national borders and lives in global harmony. In a press release on Tuesday, the WSA announced the move. WSA founder Garry Davis said in the statement:

"This undprecendented situation reveals dramatically the power of one individual versus the nation-state system, while highlighting individual soverignty. The fact that Snowden is immobilized in a Moscow Airport Transit Lounge further exposes the fiction of nation-state frontiers."

Davis founded the WSA in 1954, after a harrowing experience as a World War II bomber pilot convinced him that global citizenship was the only way to prevent future wars. Davis renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1948 to demonstrate his commitment to the cause. (Davis now lives in Burlington, Vermont, where a sign outside his home declares it SOVEREIGN WORLD TERRITORY.)

The WSA has a whole program of advocacy and educational efforts aimed at abolishing the nation-state but the World Passport, a sturdy, official-looking document, is its best-known. The WSA says it's issued more than 750,000 of them throughout the years.

The group had no contact with Snowden or his people before it awarded him a World Passport, the WSA's president, David Gallup, told me yesterday. Presumably Snowden is aware of his new document, as it reached the front page of Reddit and was reported in a number of (mostly Latin American) news sources. Gallup told me that the organization decided to issue the passport to Snowden last week "in an effort to affirm the right to the freedom of travel and the right to seek refuge from persecution," echoing the WSA's goal of gobal unity.

"We expect him to be able to use this document to identify himself and for travel purposes," Gallup said.

Could the World Passport actually help Snowden, marooned as he is in Moscow? Surprisingly, people have successfully used the document for international travel: According to the WSA's website, 180 countries have accepted the passport on a case-by-case basis. The WSA claims the governments of six countries have more formally recognized the passport. In 2010, Davis posted a YouTube video showing himself crossing the U.S.-Canada border in Vermont using only his World Passport.

But realistically the World Passport is a pretty shaky way to get around. Most of the successful border crossings seem to be flukes. Garry Davis' video aside, the U.S. does not recognize the World Passport and last year a Belizean man was arrested for attempting to cross into the U.S. from Canada border with one. Davis himself was arrested in 1977 for using the World Passport when flying into Washington D.C. Gallup and the WSA admit using the World Passport to enter a country is far from a sure thing.

"They can still reject somebody outright no matter who they are," he said. "They have the power to violate our human rights with impunity."

The WSA has been criticized by other human rights organizations for offering refugees false hope in exchange for the $45 to $100 it costs for a World Passport. Ultimately, the World Passport is more a political symbol than a useful document: Each successful entry facilitated by the arbitrarily created document helps back up the WSA's point about the harmful arbitrariness of national borders.

"Throughout history the reason we've had wars is we separate ourselves into different tribes, only today the tribes are called America, or Guyana," Gallup said. "We're one human family and we're one Earth and if we want to continue existing on this planet we have to understand first and foremost we are one."

By issuing a passport to Snowden, as he's publicly stymied by borders, they're amplifying this statement louder than ever. Because of the precarious position of many of its clients, the WSA typically likes to stay under the radar, Gallup told me, but the WSA has a history of issuing honorary World Passports to notable figures as publicity stunts, whether they want one or not: President Barack Obama was issued one in 2008, and last year Garry Davis issued Julian Assange a passport and mailed it to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where the Wikileaks founder remains holed up.

After the WSA issued Snowden's passport, reporters picked up on the group's claim the World Passport is recognized by the government of Ecuador, one of the countries floated as a possible asylum destination for Snowden. But the basis of this recognition is a single letter sent by Ecuador's U.S. Ambassador to Garry Davis in 1954. When I called the Ecuadorian embassy in New York City today, a man from the visa office told me the World Passport would not be accepted, a point echoed by Ecuadorian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Marco Albuja in a radio interview yesterday.

All of this might be moot, if Snowden can secure his temporary asylum in Russia. He said in his statement today that he has accepted all of his asylum offers, including from Venezuela, which appears to be his most likely choice. Traveling to his permanent place of asylum won't require a passport under the United Nation's 1951 Refugee Convention. And so far, the WSA hasn't gotten the passport into Snowden's hands. Yesterday, Gallup wouldn't tell me how they plan on delivering it: "I can say that by tomorrow something will have happened to effectuate getting the document hopefully to him," he said.