FP Explainer

How Do You Flee a Country Without Leaving It?

5 ways Edward Snowden can smuggle himself out of the Moscow airport.

As Edward Snowden enters his 10th full day in legal limbo -- stowed away, at least according to Russian officials, in an international terminal in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport -- his options for escaping are shrinking rapidly. As of July 2, he had fruitlessly applied to 21 countries for asylum, with some rebuffing him outright, others inviting him to apply in-country, and only Bolivia and Venezuela demonstrating a flicker of interest in inviting the NSA leaker to their shores (in fact, a plane bringing Bolivian President Evo Morales home from Russia was rerouted to Austria on Tuesday on the suspicion that it was carrying Snowden -- accusations Bolivian officials denied). With a canceled U.S. passport in hand, Snowden will have heaps of trouble getting a visa to travel to any country that might offer him sanctuary. And while he could make a run for an embassy in Moscow, he would have to first formally enter Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has pledged to not grant Snowden asylum unless he stops leaking U.S. intelligence (Snowden has since rescinded his request for shelter in Russia).

So if you're Edward Snowden, how do you possibly make your way to a safe haven without stepping on a commercial flight? Here are five daring moves Snowden could make.

Hop in a Diplomatic Pouch

There are two documented cases of hiding a person in a diplomatic pouch -- sealed parcels sent between governments and diplomatic missions that are not subject to search and seizure by customs officials -- and neither of them was successful. Mordechai Louk, who in 1962 began spying for Egypt after fleeing debts and military service in Israel, was abducted two years later by his Egyptian handlers, who suspected him of being a Mossad double agent. Louk was drugged during a meeting in Italy, packed into a crate labeled "Diplomatic bag -- do not open," and loaded onto a flight to Egypt -- that is, until a baggage handler heard him waking in the crate. Louk was extradited to Israel, where he was tried and imprisoned for 11 years. Twenty years later, Nigerian military leaders, having just risen to power in a coup, pursued the extrajudicial rendition of the previous government's transportation minister. Agents kidnapped the minister, Umaru Dikko, in London and placed him in a crate, along with a doctor to monitor his sedation. British customs officials had the packages opened after noticing a strong "medical smell" and claimed that the crates were improperly labeled as diplomatic pouches. (The liberated Dikko continued to live in Britain for the next decade.)

The laws governing diplomatic pouches are codified in Article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention, which states clearly: "The diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained" (breaching that rule has precipitated crises in bilateral relations from time to time). But the bag is only to be used for "correspondence relating to the mission and its functions." The 40 kilograms of cocaine smuggled into Italy in Ecuadorean diplomatic pouches last year, for example, was not covered, nor was the rifle smuggled out of the Libyan embassy in London after the shooting of a British policewoman during protests against Muammar al-Qaddafi in 1984. (It's unclear if the Cuban cigars Winston Churchill received by diplomatic courier during World War II were covered, as they were delivered before the Vienna Convention was written.) The problem with putting Edward Snowden in a diplomatic pouch: He's not exactly "official correspondence." It's a no-go.

Assume the Role of Diplomatic Courier

The Vienna Convention has another potential loophole: "The diplomatic courier, who shall be provided with an official document indicating his status and the number of packages constituting the diplomatic bag, shall be protected by the receiving State in the performance of his functions. He shall enjoy person inviolability and shall not be liable to any form of arrest and detention." The convention continues, "The sending State or the mission may designate couriers ad hoc."

So why not just have the Venezuelan ambassador to Moscow hand Snowden a diplomatic pouch and ask him to carry it to Caracas? Snowden would, in theory, be protected as an officially designated courier until he delivered the pouch, at which point he could apply for asylum in Venezuela.

There's a catch: "Diplomatic couriers still require visas," Peter Spiro, professor of law at Temple University and a blogger at Opinio Juris, tells FP. "I think it would be unusual to have a non-national designated as a courier. This wouldn't fly."

Flee to an Embassy

If a government will take him, Snowden could try to make a mad dash to an embassy in Moscow. Embassies have become modern-day sanctuaries for many asylum-seekers because of their legal inviolability -- it's what has protected people as diverse as Chen Guangcheng, Sam LaHood, and Julian Assange. Getting there, though, is a problem. It's 20 miles from Sheremetyevo Airport to the Venezuelan embassy in Moscow, and a couple miles farther to the Bolivian embassy. And while a diplomatic vehicle sent by an embassy can't be searched legally, it can still be stopped. (The BBC pointed out this problem when Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy last year.)

Even if Snowden gets to an embassy, that may not be enough to apply for asylum. Contrary to popular belief, embassies are not technically foreign soil. As my colleagues Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating noted last year, "What this means in practice is that once someone seeks refuge in an embassy, the foreign government often enters into negotiations with the host government about the fugitive's fate." Snowden could hole up in an embassy, as many have done before him, but he'd be in more or less the same predicament as he's in at the airport terminal.

Get 'Diplomatic Asylum'

Without traveling to a specific country and applying for asylum from within that country's formal territory, Snowden could be granted "diplomatic asylum." Ecuador conferred this status on Julian Assange in August 2012 to try to shelter him from extradition. The problem? The United States doesn't recognize diplomatic asylum.

"The United States is not a party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law," the office of then-State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement after Ecuador granted the WikiLeaks founder asylum. The United States, for its part, only grants asylum to people in the country, in accordance with the Refugee Act of 1980, and has been cautious to avoid labeling instances in which it has protected political dissidents abroad as asylum.

Hitch a Ride on a Foreign Leader's Plane

Snowden would have a hard time getting to Venezuela, but what if Venezuela came to him? Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was in Moscow for an energy conference this week -- could he just spirit Snowden away with him? Possibly. Maduro has been vague about whether he'd consider plucking Snowden from Sheremetyevo Airport. He told RT on Tuesday that he has not yet received Snowden's request for asylum; when asked at a press conference if Snowden would be coming back with him to Caracas, he reportedly laughed. "What I think I will take are many accords that we are going to sign with Russia and lots of Russian investments in petroleum and gas," Maduro said. "That is what we are going to take to Venezuela." But the Venezuelan leader also downplayed the importance of Snowden's location. "We should not think about how Snowden would escape Moscow airport but to analyze what information this young person provided," he told RT. "If in the next days this person leaves the airport by plane or by boat or however, this is not so important" (Sheremetyevo is landlocked, so a boat is probably out of the question).

If Bolivian officials are to be believed, Portugal, France, and Italy took this scenario seriously enough that they refused to permit Evo Morales's plane from entering their airspace on Tuesday -- out of concern that Snowden was on board. The Bolivian president was returning from the same conference that brought Maduro to Moscow. 

Of course, Snowden's biggest stumbling block in each of these scenarios is Russia's enforcement of international law. And in Russia, there's no guarantee that those laws will be enforced. If Vladimir Putin decides Snowden should be someplace other than Sheremetyevo, chances are, he will be.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

FP Explainer

Why Is It So Hard to Identify the World’s Rape Capital?

How it's possible for Botswana and Sweden to top a global ranking of rape.

In the new March/April issue of Foreign Policy, Laura Heaton investigates a 2010 incident of mass rape committed over a period of four days by Congolese rebels in Luvungi, a small town in the country's war-torn east. As horrific accounts of sexual violence against women and children came flooding out of the town at the time, the U.N.'s special representative for sexual violence in conflict labeled the Democratic Republic of the Congo the "rape capital of the world" -- a designation reinforced by the media. "Forty-eight women raped every hour in Congo," a 2011 article in the Guardian declared, going on to call Congo "the centre of rape as a weapon of war" and "the worst place on Earth to be a woman."

But are these superlatives warranted? There is no arguing that rape -- particularly as an act of aggression -- is an egregious problem in the country. But is Congo really the worst offender? And if not Congo, what is the world's real rape capital? It turns out that's pretty impossible to determine. 

Going by the United Nations' widely referenced survey of crime statistics around the world, the five countries with the highest per capita rates of rape -- defined by the U.N. as "sexual intercourse without valid consent" based on police records -- are a varied bunch: Botswana, Sweden, Nicaragua, Grenada, and the United Kingdom (the organization does not have data on Congo). But before we go labeling Sweden or Botswana the world's epicenter of rape, a closer look at the ranking reveals the staggering complexity behind the numbers. 

The first problem in cross-country comparisons of crime rates in general -- and rape in particular -- is definitional. What exactly constitutes rape? Statistics tend to skew upward in places with broader, more inclusive laws. In Sweden, for example, each instance of sexual violence is catalogued as its own crime. "When a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events," one Swedish sociologist explained to the BBC. "In many other countries it would just be one record." In Congo, by contrast, the World Health Organization found that police did not record reported cases of sexual violence in the absence of a witness who could testify to the use of force. 

More generally, the definitional limitations of international crime statistics have contributed to distorted results about the world's "kidnapping capitals." Australia, for instance, leads the pack, not because masked men are nabbing people off the streets left and right but because under the country's penal system, custody battles where one parent objects to the other spending time with the child counts as "kidnapping." 

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes has put together a framework to address these difficulties that makes a stark classificatory distinction between rape as a sexual act and rape as an act of war or aggression, meaning statistically these would be catalogued as separate crimes. The approach implies that rape in Congo, which is often conflict-based, is not really comparable to the kind of sexual violence faced by women in, say, Sweden. But Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege project, wonders if such a distinction is useful. "In war, women's bodies are used to send a message to the enemy: We can conquer you, humiliate you, control you," she told FP. "I don't know that that's terribly different from the way men who violate women think about us in peacetime. Rape is an act of power and control." 

Even more vexing than these categorical challenges are the statistical ones. When it comes to cases of rape, how and what data is gathered can have a significant impact on our ability to make valid cross-country inferences. The U.N. data, for example, is based on criminal reports of rape, which means that factors such as a well-organized, sympathetic outreach program; an efficient system for reporting transgressions; a highly competent police force; and women's knowledge of their own rights -- all desirable things for a country to have -- could produce a higher number of reported rapes in certain countries, making these places seem worse off than their less well-equipped neighbors. Having a high incidence of rape is never a good thing, but the fact that women in countries like Sweden report sexual acts against them -- and that those accounts are taken seriously -- shows that the system, in part, is working. 

Conversely, in India, where large swathes of the population live in rural areas with low literacy levels, criminal records may not be the best reflection of the prevalence of rape. According to the U.N., India ranked 49th out of 60 countries with available data in 2010. Only recently has India's rape problem received international attention -- fueled not by crime statistics but by a deadly gang rape in December, which has prompted more victims to step forward and discuss their own experiences. 

The U.N. study acknowledges its own limitations and suggests surveying as an alternative method for collecting criminal statistics. But these "victimization surveys" come with their own host of problems; everything from the format to the skill of the interviewer can skew the results. Amelia Hoover Green, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University, points to one example from the United States, noting that a 2009 study found that changing survey wording led to a tenfold increase in reports of forcible rape on college campuses in the past year. When applied to the total number of female college students in the country, those results translated into the difference between 14,000 and 140,000 rapes. Compare that range to the official criminal record -- the FBI catalogued 459 forcible rape cases at U.S. universities that year -- and the volatility of these numbers becomes clear (and then imagine replicating these quantitative problems on a global scale). 

A final factor contributing to the fuzzy math around sexual violence is the most ubiquitous and damaging issue plaguing rape statistics: victim silence. "Women have very little incentive to come forward," Wolfe explains. "Police have been known to re-rape, bribe, or make fun of rape survivors globally. Husbands have divorced or cast out women from Syria to Sudan to Guatemala when they've discovered their wives have been raped." Despite the physical and psychological horrors of rape, victims' lives can be made worse if they disclose their experiences. 

But the converse is also true. In rare instances, there are benefits to being identified as a rape victim that could motivate a person to falsely come forward. Heaton provides a compelling account of this in Luvungi, where sexual violence against women attracted the dollars and attention of international donors, perhaps creating "perverse" incentives. One study described examples of this problem in other countries like Colombia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where reporting rape entitled victims to free medical attention in the wake of catastrophes. These incentives are undoubtedly helpful in encouraging victims who would otherwise remain silent to come forward, but they also speak to the difficulty of using health records as a basis for grand, sweeping claims about the prevalence of rape.

On the one hand, these rare instances of over-reporting can undermine the efforts of international organizations to be taken seriously. On the other, the precise figures may be less significant than what lies behind them. As Wolfe cautions, "With numbers like these -- even if they were exaggerated -- why would we worry about over-reporting? Isn't the violation of a single woman too much?"

Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/AFP/Getty Images