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OPINION: Is the airport transit lounge really a geopolitical black hole?

By Joshua E. Keating

Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON -- Edward Snowden has now been granted temporary asylum in Russia for one year, ending his 39-day stay in the transit lounge of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. The Russian government's position is that Snowden finally "entered" Russia only last week, when he left the terminal. Back on June 25, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had responded to U.S. extradition requests by saying that Snowden had not technically actually entered the country as he had "not crossed the Russian border."

But are air passengers actually in stateless limbo until they go through passport control? Are airport lounges really aeronautical Hamsterdams where the laws of no nations apply?

Not exactly, according to Ruwantissa Abeyratne, a lawyer at the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization. In an article for the Journal of Transportation Security, Abeyratne examines the Snowden case in terms of international law, in particularly the 1944 Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation, the primary treaty governing international air travel.

The treaty states that "every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory" and that "for the purposes of this Convention, the territory of a State shall be deemed to be the land areas and territorial waters ajacent thereto under the sovereignty, suzerainty, protection or mandate of such State."

It goes on to specify that "the laws and regulations of a contracting State as to the admission to or departure from its territory of passengers, crew or cargo of aircraft ... shale be complied with by or on behalf of such passengers crew or cargo upon entrance into or departure from, or while within the territory of that State."

In Abeyratne's view, this suggests that from the point of view of international law, "the transit lounge at the airport in Moscow is as much a part of Russia as the Kremlin." Therefore, the lounge is "within the control and jurisdiction of a State, unless the State excludes that jurisdiction in its local laws, much to its disadvantage and deficiency in logical reasoning. Immigration control does not determine a State's territory or its jurisdic-tion over person in the territory of that State."

Taking this view, Snowden actually entered Russia on June 23, when his plane landed at the airport and has been in Russian territory, subject to Russian law. It's all something of a moot point as Russia likely never intended to extradite him and has now granted him legal asylum, but given that Snowden's not the first person to find himself in this situation, it's probably a question worth settling.