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Authoritarian Regimes Continue to Target Critics Among Their Diaspora Five Years After Khashoggi's Murder
Liberal regimes have failed to articulate an effective strategy to protect foreign dissidents in the face of growing transnational repression
Wikipedia Commons. Malcolm Brown
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and regime critic who was murdered and dismembered in an operation sanctioned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after being lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Making the case even more shocking to those in the United States was that fact that Khashoggi worked for the Washington Post and had US residency.
Khashoggi’s case—a blatant instance of Saudi Arabia violating national sovereignty to carry out a hit job on foreign soil—is one of the most dramatic examples of transnational repression, the increasingly prevalent practice of authoritarian governments reaching beyond their own borders to target activists, journalists, human rights defenders, members of political opposition and other critics abroad. While his case is perhaps the most famous example, it is far from the only one.
For 17 consecutive years, Freedom House has tracked a decline in freedom around the world, and transnational repression is a contributing factor that results in the loss of freedom of expression, freedom of association and deterioration in the rule of law. Freedom House has documented 854 cases of direct, physical transnational repression (assassinations, assaults, kidnappings, detentions) since 2014. Thirty-eight governments have committed transnational repression, reaching outside their borders to target regime critics in 91 countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica, and Japan. India is the only democracy among the 38 countries.
Silencing the Diaspora
Transnational repression is an effort to silence dissent among diaspora and exile communities, but it is not uncommon for governments to claim they are targeting “terrorists” rather than critics. (India has denied responsibility for the recent killing of the Sikh Canadian on Canadian soil, but has insisted that he was a terrorist.) The US government’s use of renditions and targeted killings as part of the “global war on terror” and the Israeli government’s targeted killings outside its territory have contributed to a global erosion of norms against transnational repression by creating a special category for the transnational pursuit of “terrorists.” Indeed, all over the world, states engaged in this practice apply the label of terrorism to exiles whom they pursue, in some cases overtly citing the examples of the United States and Israel.
The Chinese government conducts the most sophisticated and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world and is responsible for 30% of all the incidents Freedom House has documented. Government officials claim their campaign of mass imprisonment of Uyghurs, which the United States has declared a genocide, is a “reeducation” effort to deradicalize terrorists. Other top perpetrators, which Freedom House refers to as “origin states,” are Turkey, Tajikistan, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Iran, Rwanda and of course Russia. Together, these 10 governments account for 80% of the incidents Freedom House has documented since 2018.
The Iranian government made headlines in recent years with a plot that sounded straight out of a movie. An Iranian intelligence network conspired to kidnap a women’s rights advocate and frequent regime critic from her home abroad, smuggling her by boat to Venezuela and then onward by plane to Iran, where she would face presumable retribution. Except, it wasn’t a movie, it was a story ripped straight from the headlines, and the would-be victim was a real-life person, Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad. The place she was to be kidnapped from was Brooklyn, New York. Thankfully, the plot was intercepted and foiled by the FBI. But, a year later, a man was caught brandishing an AK-47 outside Alinejad’s home while attempting to peer through her windows. He and several others ended up being charged with murder-for-hire targeting Alinejad. All were members of an organized crime outfit with ties to Iran.
The Repression Toolkit
The number of TNR cases Freedom House reports is only the tip of the iceberg when nonphysical instances of transnational repression (online harassment, threats, surveillance) by state-affiliated actors are factored in. Freedom House does not track nonphysical cases in our database due to the challenge of verifying incidents using only the open-source information, but the stories themselves paint an alarming picture.
One Hong Kong American activist discovered a drone hovering outside his apartment in Los Angeles, apparently looking through the windows with a camera. While he doesn’t know for certain whether it was instigated by Hong Kong or Beijing officials, it is a logical assumption. Another sent me photos he had taken of men who followed him on foot and in a vehicle, filming him as he ran errands around London. Last year, Freedom House colleagues attended a rally in Washington, DC calling for the release of the thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. A short time after their arrival, officials from the Egyptian embassy showed up to film them. Uyghurs around the world have received messages and phone calls demanding they stop speaking out about China’s widescale repression of Uyghurs and threatening them or their family members back in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region if they don’t desist.
Transnational repression is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, an opponent of Chilean president Augusto Pinochet was killed by a car bomb in Washington, DC, an assassination later confirmed to have been directed by Pinochet himself. But it is a growing phenomenon—and alarmingly so. Modern technology has enabled modern-day dictators conduct widescale surveillance, tracking, harassment, and even kidnapping and murder of their critics, even after those critics have fled abroad.
Too often, human rights abuses and repression occurring in nondemocratic countries have been dismissed by policymakers and the general public as local issues impacting only those with the “poor luck” to have been born in a country ruled by a despot. It is true that repression causes great suffering for people living under authoritarian rule. It also often fuels instability that drives desperate refugees and migrants to flee abroad, destabilizing entire regions. But no issue illustrates the way in which authoritarian repression can violate the rights and national sovereignty of those living in democracies so starkly as transnational repression. Democracies, especially those where transnational repression has occurred (which Freedom House refers to as “host states”), need to take urgent action to address this issue.
Dealing With Transnational Repression
Nine governments, including the United States, Germany, and Australia, have already signed onto the Declaration of Principles to Combat Transnational Repression, which acknowledge transnational repression as a threat that requires urgent action and commits signatories to protect the vulnerable and address those threats. Their signature will allow civil society to hold them accountable. But there is much more signatories and other democracies can do to operationalize the pledge and better protect those living in their borders.
Enshrine a definition of transnational repression into law:
Because transnational repression is such a new or unknown concept to law enforcement, many countries, including the United States, do not have laws in place to sufficiently address it. Without a clear legal definition, policymakers and law enforcement officials are sometimes not able to recognize let alone respond to transnational repression. A definition serves as the basis for enabling governments to monitor, report, and share information on transnational repression, train officials who may encounter perpetrators or victims, and to pass additional laws, such as the criminalization of transnational repression, if necessary. Any new laws should be carefully crafted to ensure the protection of civil liberties.
Ensure officials at the federal, state/provincial, and local level receive training in how to recognize and respond to transnational repression and assist those at risk:
It is not uncommon for authoritarian rulers to issue arrest warrants or misuse Interpol notices—international requests for local help— to apprehend their targets. This is perhaps one of the most Mephistophelean aspects of transnational repression as it effectively turns otherwise well-intentioned officials in host countries into agents of repression for other states. And, even if officials aren’t being tricked into acting on behalf of authoritarian regimes, it can be difficult to distinguish transnational repression from other illegal activity and deal with it in the appropriate legal framework. Similarly, those working with potential targets of transnational repression may not understand the support they need if they don’t know what transnational repression is. Past training has led officials to engage in proactive community outreach activities that have strengthened information sharing between officials and targeted communities.
Support and protect those who may be targeted for transnational repression:
This should include providing emergency assistance and visas for rapid entry for those who may need to flee transnational repression. It should also include working with civil society to provide training on digital and physical security to those who may be targeted for surveillance and harassment. And when officials from democratic governments are stationed abroad and encounter potential instances of transnational repression, such as when Uyghurs living outside China have been targeted for deportation at Beijing’s behest, other democratic governments should emphasize to the host state the importance of protecting those being targeted and ensuring that their own government does not inadvertently become complicit in political targeting.
As technology advances and authoritarian rulers continue to cooperate and learn from one another, instances of transnational repression are growing. So too must collaboration and cooperation among democratic governments. Transnational repression violates national sovereignty and sends an unsettling message to critics and dissidents who have been forced to flee their homelands and seek refuge in another country that their harassment, physical assault, kidnapping and even murder can’t—or won’t—be stopped.
© The UnPopulist 2023