Edward Snowden, Evo Morales and the Overflight Rights of State Aircraft

lawprofessors.typepad.com on July 3, 2013 released the following:

“We wanted to check in with a few thoughts on the fascinating events surrounding the rerouting of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ return flight from Moscow. While there are conflicting news reports as to exactly what happened, it appears that President Morales’ aircraft, while en route from Russia to Bolivia, was denied permission to enter French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese airspace. The aircraft landed in Austria to refuel, where, according to some reports, it was searched by local authorities before finally being permitted to continue the flight home today. It is widely believed that the aforementioned governments denied Morales overflight authorization because of pressure from the United States government which believed Edward Snowden, wanted in connection with U.S. security leaks, may have been aboard the aircraft.

Leaving aside the many related issues that are outside the purview of this blog, the denial of overflight authorization to Morales’ aircraft has garnered criticism from many Latin American leaders and raised questions of international law. We thought it would be helpful to provide a few brief points of reference with regard to the relevant international aviation law surrounding the situation.

First, overflights by State aircraft fall largely outside of the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation, the basis for most of what we discuss as “international aviation law.” Article 3 of the Convention limits the Convention’s application to civil, as opposed to State, aircraft. While State aircraft isn’t fully defined, there is no question that aircraft transporting a sitting State president on official State business qualifies.

Article 3(c) prohibits State aircraft from flying over the territory of another State without prior authorization. While obtaining overflight authorization for diplomatic aircraft such as the one carrying Morales is often routine (a description of U.S. authorization procedures can be found here), States have a clear legal right to deny such authorization. We don’t currently know enough about what Morales’ original intended flight path was, and what, if any, authorizations were obtained prior to takeoff only to be later revoked. Given States’ broad sovereign authority in this area, there doesn’t appear to be any violations of international law, at least not as relates to aviation. Of course, such an unusual incident is certain to carry diplomatic and political consequences regardless of legality.”


Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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The author of this blog is Douglas C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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