Human Rights Watch Slams Russia (and Snowden)

August 2, 2013
Edward Snowden. Photograph: Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch

Edward Snowden is a man who gave up the life he had in order to “blow the whistle” on the work of the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA programs that have been exposed in the process have raised serious concerns about secret surveillance programs and internet spying. Many rights groups, free speech advocates, and privacy experts have called Snowden a hero for leaking this information.

However, Human Rights Watch appears to have just thrown Snowden under the bus. Deputy Executive Director of HRW, Carroll Bogert, wrote a piece for CNN (which was then carried on HRW’s own website) that seems to poke fun at Snowden’s praise for Russia, a state guilty of far worse crimes than the NSA. In particular, Bogert notes that Snowden has expressed interest in learning Russian. She the gives him a vocabulary list: Khuliganstvo (hooliganism), Ekstremizm (what it sounds like), Proverka (a polite word for raid), Inostrany agent (“foreign agent”)… in other words, if Snowden really wants to learn Russian, he should start by learning words that will help him continue his work, since Snowden is concerned for free speech, free information, and human rights. Furthermore,  many of these words he’ll have to learn quickly in order to avoid being put in prison (or worse).

Here is the bottom line – to many observers (and US citizens, to say nothing of everyone else in the world who uses the internet), the actions of the NSA are deeply concerning. We’ve now gone far beyond the scope of the alarming “warrantless wiretapping” scandal of the Bush administration. Even those who are concerned with the threats facing the United States in a post-9/11 world are asking serious questions about whether these new programs go too far or offer citizens enough protection. But Bogert suggests that there is a false equivalency here between the actions of the American and Russian governments. In an analysis for The American Interest, The Interpreter’s editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, suggests that Russia has a long history of profiting from the work of even well-meaning leakers:

Much has been written in recent weeks about refraining from turning Edward Snowden into the real story and keeping our eye firmly affixed on the NSA’s disregard for the privacy of its own citizens. This argument has merit, though it would have even more if Snowden had not chosen to make the story all about himself, first by seeking refuge in authoritarian states hostile to the United States, then by rendering moral judgments about those states solely on the basis of how they have treated him.

Is he simply a fool to believe that Vladimir Putin has “earned the respect of the world” for welcoming a former U.S. intelligence contractor onto Russian soil with reams of classified security documents? (Perhaps we should ask the family of Sergei Magnitsky, or Alexei Navalny whether the Putin regime deserves our respect.)

To make a hero out of Edward Snowden requires a very particular kind of blindness to wider reality. After all, in China, Twitter is banned outright, and the kinds of programs being attributed to the NSA now don’t even constitute the state of surveillance in China a decade ago. And while Snowden claims he is being prosecuted for speaking truth to power, unless he winds up poisoned by the American equivalent of Polonium 210 or he’s convicted of a crime after he’s been beaten to death, then he may or may not have a point, but he’s also completely hypocritical when he’s praising Putin for supporting free speech and human rights.