Aaron: Welcome to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. Repressive regimes don't like critics, and they aren't satisfied to let their repression stop at the border. When they set their sights on threatening, coercing, or even killing critics who have fled to other countries, it's called transnational repression. My guest today is Annie Boyajian, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom House, which tracks instances of transnational repression and helps governments prevent it.
A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron: What happened to [Saudi Arabian journalist] Jamal Khashoggi?
Annie: Great question. We would say that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is an emblematic case of transnational repression, which is when governments reach beyond their own borders to target critics in an effort to silence dissent. For Mr. Khashoggi, he was lured into a consulate in Istanbul where he was suffocated and dismembered in what is still one of the most shocking cases of transnational repression that we have heard. He was, of course, lured into the Saudi consulate as he was a citizen of Saudi Arabia and a well-known journalist and regime critic.
Aaron: The response to this, I think, speaks to a lot of the issues that you raise in the article that you wrote for The UnPopulist because there seemed to be a lot of anger about this from U.S. citizens, shocked that someone who was a U.S. resident, that this would happen to them from journalists because he was a Washington Post journalist. Then nothing really happened. The perpetrators, the ultimate perpetrators, skated. There were no consequences. Why not?
Annie: I would say it's the age-old answer to why things don't happen to other human rights abusers or corrupt actors, and it's because there are politics at play. On the one hand, I would say you did see something happen that was unusual, right? The FBI did an investigation and report that you had senators talk about publicly. That is certainly unusual. There were sanctions of varying levels of strength that were imposed on some of the individuals involved. To your point, the Crown Prince himself, the well-known architect of this, according to reports, nothing has happened to him and he's continued to be a player on the world stage.
I think part of the reason that this issue shocked people and captured everyone's focus and attention is, one, it was incredibly egregious, but two, it really showed how human rights abuses in a country can have an impact, a global impact, in a way that other human rights issues don't necessarily show. It's just so evident because of the reaching into another country, because of the violation of sovereignty, how the security and human rights issues interact and interplay here. I think that's part of what was so shocking about it.
Aaron: How often does this sort of thing happen?
Annie: We have a database that looks at instances of physical transnational repression. That's things like assassinations, so the Jamal Khashoggi case, but also assaults, detentions, deportations. We have tracked, since 2014, 854 incidents of transnational repression committed by 38 governments in 91 different countries around the world. That is just a drop in the bucket. Our database does not include the indirect tactics, and that's things like spyware, and the use of spyware is so widespread right now, digital harassment, coercion by proxy.
We do think that the database paints a clear picture of the threat posed by transnational oppression and what is happening. We do see additional governments engaging in transnational oppression as we track information in our database. In 2022, I think we saw two additional governments added.
Aaron: You said 38 countries in the current date. How spread out is that? Is this something where there's a lot of it's happening across a lot of countries, or is it heavily concentrated among a small handful of regimes?
Annie: Great question. I would say the majority of countries engaging in transnational repression are countries that are rated as not free in our Freedom in the World Report. Our top 10 offenders are responsible for 80% of all of the incidents we have in our database. That is China, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Tajikistan—I'm probably not remembering them all in order—but it's also Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Rwanda, Iran, that's the top 10. And 80% that's significant, but it's global. It's in Asia, it's in Latin America, it's in the Middle East, it's everywhere.
This is partly because we are such a globalized world. We have tracked at Freedom House 17 consecutive years of decline in democracy around the world. That has been driven, in part, by worsening repression at home. Because we're so globalized, we see people flee, and it's easier sometimes for people to flee now than previously. It's also a lot easier for governments to engage in transnational repression. You can get spyware very cheaply. The digital age, where everyone needs to be online, and everyone is connected has made it very easy for governments to target dissidents and critics, even after they've fled abroad.
“We have tracked at Freedom House 17 consecutive years of decline in democracy around the world. That has been driven, in part, by worsening repression at home. Because we're so globalized, we see people flee, and it's easier sometimes for people to flee now than previously. It's also a lot easier for governments to engage in transnational repression.”
Aaron: Just staying for a moment on definitional questions, how narrowly tied to, I guess, the state does it need to be to count? What I'm thinking of is you can have an instance where the state leadership basically hires people or sends its own people off into another country to assassinate someone. It's like a very direct tie. Then you might have something like the Salman Rushdie situation, where it's more just we're going to foment a lot of anger at a given person and then hope violence against them falls out of it. Does that count as well?
Annie: Great question. We do look at non-state actors who are tied to governments. For our definition, there would need to be some sort of clear linkage between the government and the actor. For example, when a government hires private investigators to surveil, technically, whether those investigators know it or not, they would be engaging in transnational repression. You also have instances where governments have been linked pretty clearly to organized crime or other individuals who are, thugs for hire who will go intimidate and beat people up. That would count.
I think it gets a lot more tenuous if it's just anger fomented at someone like Salman Rushdie. That's less clear for the purposes of our database. There are indeed non-state actors who have been involved.
Aaron: Can you talk a bit about the link between this and accusations of terrorism? I found that an interesting part of the argument of basically claiming critics are terrorists.
Annie: Yes, absolutely. We see governments around the world copy laws or arguments made by democracy for their own purposes all the time. We definitely see this in the case of terrorism. The pervasive use of the term terrorist following the 9/11 attacks by the U.S. and other democracies made it easier. I'm not saying here we should not have called those individuals terrorists. I'm not speaking to that at all.
There are a lot of governments now who the first thing they will do when you try to say, "Excuse me, you are targeting someone because they are a critic." They'll say, "No, I'm not. This person is a terrorist." They will toss all sorts of spurious charges at them. This in the case of Russia, of China, of Iran. The government of China is responsible for 30 percent of all the cases in our database. They'll say, "Oh, they're inciting violence or a national security threat. They're a terrorist."
“The government of China is responsible for 30 percent of all the cases in our database. They'll say, "Oh, they're inciting violence or a national security threat. They're a terrorist."“
It's one of the top things we see, one of the top excuses that governments use in going after critics. One of the things we talk about with policymakers is just being really aware and not taking some of these charges at face value, particularly when the government's making the allegations are ones we have documented as engaging in transnational repression.
Aaron: Is the audience for this terrorist label? If I'm a repressive regime that wants to target a critic overseas and I am now publicly labeling that critic a terrorist. The people that I'm doing that labeling for, you've mentioned, to some extent, it's an excuse you can give to other countries. I was not just targeting a critic. This person was dangerous and I was therefore within my rights or justified. Is there also an element of talking to their own people in doing that? Even in authoritarian regimes, if you can convince the people that you're doing these things for their own good, that's an easier sell?
Annie: Absolutely. Transnational repression is one of a wide array of tactics that governments use when they're trying to repress, and control, and manipulate their population. Particularly for individuals who only have access to state propaganda. Or only consume state propaganda for a variety of reasons, it's a very effective argument to make for their domestic audience. It's part of the reason why they do it. Definitely, in terms of the countries that do engage in propaganda, I think, the propaganda arm goes hand in hand with any charges of transnational or any allegations of terrorism.
“Transnational repression is one of a wide array of tactics that governments use when they're trying to repress, and control, and manipulate their population.”
Or any of the other charges they lob at individuals. We see this, in Hong Kong and mainland China all the time in the way that Chinese state-owned publications talk about human rights lawyers and activists and others.
Aaron: Why do they care so much? If I'm in a repressive regime, everybody in my country is, reading and listening to and watching state-run media. I have a pretty strong hold on power. I know that murdering this random journalist or college professor or whatever they happen to be on foreign soil, it might not get me thrown out of power. The United States is not going to go in and like have regime change in Saudi Arabia because of this murder, but it's going to cause me trouble on the world stage. Why not just ignore these critics? If they fled the country, maybe they're not that much of a threat anyway.
Annie: It's a great question. It's something that, so I've been in D.C. policy circles for 20 years, which, I don't know, does that mean I'm doing something right or doing something wrong? That's a whole other conversation for another day. If you were thinking logically as an authoritarian, and then this is where you start wildly speculating about just the dynamics of human psychology. If you're thinking logically, you just do only a little bit of repression, right? Not enough to catch international attention, not enough to outrage your population. Some of these really more dramatic acts, I think there are a variety of reasons.
Certain regimes are very sensitive to their public image. Definitely, this is true in the case of the People's Republic of China. Sometimes I do really wonder if it is a function of some of these leaders just not having anyone brave enough to be a critical voice and tell, are you sure? You sure you want to do this? In some cases, it really has pushed public opinion too far. I think Saudi Arabia, they're obviously very engaged on the political stage, but it took a long time and this still comes up as an issue, as it should. There's still a lot more accountability that is needed there.
Aaron: How do we get that accountability, especially given that often these repressive regimes, Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil and a lot of connections throughout, say, the US. China is an enormous market. It's a manufacturing powerhouse. There seem to be a lot of incentives to find excuses to look the other way on this behavior, especially among the people who are actually in a position to potentially do something about it. The Washington Post journalists can gripe all they want to, but they're not going to be able to depose the head of Saudi Arabia or impose sanctions.
Annie: I think that is why education on this topic is so important, because it is a violation of sovereignty and it does directly impact the security of individuals in democracies. In the United States, we saw the Iranian regime try to kidnap a women's rights activist, and their plot was that they were going to kidnap her from her home in Brooklyn and stick her on a boat, take her to Venezuela, and then from Venezuela back to Iran. Then when that didn't work, they tried to assassinate her, I think twice now.
A friend of mine is an activist from Hong Kong. He's at home in his apartment in LA, and heard a strange noise and looked outside, and there was a drone hovering outside his apartment trying to take pictures. Okay. He didn't run out and tackle the drone. How can we prove who's operating it? This is a real violation of U.S. law. It's a violation of the 91 countries where it has occurred. For us, how to get the accountability, you're right. It's not an easy answer. There will always be political realities at play, but education around this issue and then codification of a definition in law.
Unfortunately, there's a mix of governments [that engage in transnational repression], so I don't want to paint the picture that only authoritarians are doing this, but it is certainly mostly countries that we rate as not free.
What transnational oppression is, is the key first step because that definition, everything stems from that. Do you need additional criminal law? Do you need training for government officials? Do you need to adjust immigration law to allow quick, easy entry for people who may be targeted? We would certainly say yes. Do you need additional resources and support for people who have been targeted once they reach your shores? We would say yes, but all of that starts with a definition and then coordination among governments that want to address the issue, which we're starting to see.
The G7 has talked about this issue and is continuing to work on it. There were some statements released alongside the Summit for Democracy and it's not only authoritarian regimes engaging in this. Unfortunately, there's a mix of governments, so I don't want to paint the picture that only authoritarians are doing this, but it is certainly mostly countries that we rate as not free. Democracies are really going to have to work together because we see the non-democracies working together, and so we don't want to be caught flat-footed on this one.
Aaron: What would defining it clearly, narrowly within the scope of law accomplish if these are either lawless regimes or—I guess let me ask it this way. It seems like if I am one country and I assassinate someone within the territory of another country, I've committed murder. That's already illegal. I have potentially violated the sovereignty. That's defined in different ways. What do we gain from carving out a specific legal standard about this thing?
Annie: There are actually two areas of law where I think you would want the definition. One would be Title 22, which is all the foreign affairs stuff, right, where you can have that broader, more expansive definition that really describes all the ways that transnational oppression manifests. Things we haven't talked about yet like coercion by proxy, where here I am in the US, I have family back home somewhere, they are getting threats and pressure and harassment from the government. Codifying it there will let you, as I mentioned, train government officials who might come in contact with it so that they're less susceptible to, for example, seeing an arrest warrant and picking someone up just based on the fact that it's an arrest warrant, whereas if they've gotten training and they know, aha, this is coming from a government that engages in transnational oppression, let's turn a more critical eye. Which in the US, I do think that there is already wide awareness and growing awareness at the federal level, a lot more to be done at state and local, so that's one whole basket. Then there's Title 18, which is criminal law, and I think there's plenty of robust discussion and good debate that could happen around should we, if we do criminalize, what should it look like?
If you look at the cases that have been prosecuted already, Department of Justice is having to get really creative in what they are using. Murder is pretty straightforward, obviously, that is illegal, but in the case of some individuals who were surveilling and harassing folks here in the US, they had to use stalking charges or conspiracy to commit stalking. In the case of the Ryan Air flight that Belarus forced down so that they could apprehend a blogger, there were some Americans on that plane, and so the United States used a law that I, until that moment, did not know existed, which was conspiracy to commit air piracy.
I think we have heard repeatedly, there's a real gap in law, and I think this is where you want to make sure you're protecting civil liberties, and where robust debate and discussion from lawyers is well warranted of, okay, if we are adding, what does it look like? There's also the advocacy value, telling the People's Republic of China, "These people are being convicted in the United States on conspiracy to commit stalking" does not have the same ring to it as saying they're being charged on engaging in transnational repression. There's real value in a democracy being able to say, "No, can't do that here. It's a crime here."
“There's also the advocacy value, telling the People's Republic of China, ‘These people are being convicted in the United States on conspiracy to commit stalking,’ does not have the same ring to it as saying they're being charged on engaging in transnational repression. There's real value in a democracy being able to say, ‘No, can't do that here. It's a crime here.’“
We are, of course, not so naive as to think that fixing laws in different democracies will stop this from happening completely, but it's an important step. I think coordination of democracies over time will send a very clear message that this is not tolerable. You got to follow that up with other actions, which we could talk about all day long.
Aaron: I was actually going to ask about those other actions.
Because it seems like if I'm China and I hire some people to harass you because you've been criticizing China or I hire someone to take you out because I really want to escalate things, those people, it's not like I'm sending senior government officials or people of I guess consequence in the regime's eyes to go and do this stuff. It almost looks like the mob takes out a hit and so you throw the person who carried out the hit in jail but the mob boss doesn't really suffer any consequences. What meaningful kinds of consequences other than democracy saying, "No, we really mean it. You shouldn't do that."
Annie: Yes, fair question. Listen, I actually think most folks would be really surprised about the level of officials who are directly engaging in this. I will say I was speaking to a journalist from a country in the Middle East, she's wanting to be under the radar for now so I won't name the country, not Saudi Arabia, different country, and is living in Germany. She was beaten up in Germany by a diplomat from the embassy in Germany. There is a level of hubris that goes into this and we have seen in some countries it really does seem like certain diplomats are traveling around with their portfolio almost being transnational oppression.
I think this is a foreign policy issue. It is also a domestic policy issue and you really to be effective have to address it as both. On the foreign policy side of things, there are sanctions that should be imposed on individuals engaging in this but also on individuals directing transnational oppression. This should be an issue that is routinely raised publicly and privately with the government. It should be an issue at multilateral bodies as it is starting to be because you can't just get at this obviously with one simple law.
We have talked a lot about the conditioning of foreign assistance which if we did it could be effective if we didn't allow loopholes. The GAO for your readers who want to dig in more actually released a very good report about a month ago that looks at some of the options within the US context. Say that they were talking about do you bring in arms control policy? Do you bring in other existing measures that have not been fully deployed? There is a lot more room on the targeted sanctions front quite frankly.
Aaron: On the technology front because the technology is making this—It's either easier to find the people you want to find or easier to track them, or easier to harass them. Should we as liberal regimes be cracking down on the use of spyware and the sale of these tools? I ask about that again in this question of incentives because while the United States government might not be participating in targeted assassinations overseas, we do buy and use spyware. Other liberal regimes do as well. What do we do about that considering that the countries that might want to crack down are the same ones who are also good consumers of these products?
Annie: It's a huge problem. I would say the short answer is yes, and. You already have companies like NSO Group which is the purveyor of the famous Pegasus [spyware software that allowed governments who bought it to hack the phones of dissidents, journalists and other critics] which actually Jamal Khashoggi had on his computer. Also, it's popped up with dozens of human rights defenders who we know. That's already on the entity list for exports. You can't buy that. There are plenty of purveyors of cheap spyware, and many of those companies are not in the United States. It used to be that just a handful of companies existed and now there is to your point a proliferation.
If companies in democracies stop exporting, that can help in the sense that at least economically it can make it more expensive. Maybe somehow there you limit it. You also need to make sure and this goes to my earlier point about you want a definition so you can provide training. You need to make sure that people who may be targeted are receiving training in digital hygiene. How do you stay safe and secure online? When you see violations, you need to be able to prosecute it. In the US, we need a comprehensive privacy law. It's a very complex web and quite frankly, some of this is going to be very difficult to walk back.
In that sense, a lot of the human rights defenders we work with, it is the informed risk on their end and people needing to do things these days like go out and have conversations in fields. Particularly with the government of China and the way that they're exporting some of these technologies to countries around the world. We just need to be very aware and have eyes open and raise these as issues if you're a policymaker. Back to my earlier point, when you see misuse, impose targeted sanctions and make sure that you are prohibiting export when you can.
Aaron: You also mentioned immigration as a way to help this, to make it easier for people to get out of these repressive regimes and seek some degree of protection in other countries. How do we define regime critics for that purpose? If we're going to carve out special exceptions to immigration laws because I'm going to assume that we can't just radically liberalize immigration laws because that seems to be an uphill battle constantly. Probably made more complicated by the fact that the countries that Americans seem to be most skeptical about letting people in from are often the most repressive regimes. But if I come to you as an agent of the state and say, "I'm a regime critic, let me in." How do you know? What's the standard for regime criticism?
Annie: Yes, great question. I am not an immigration lawyer, so we're going to rapidly be in territory that I have no business speaking in detail about. I would say, actually, there's legislation that was introduced by Senator Menendez that was a visa for human rights defenders. I think the way they got at that it was for human rights defenders at urgent risk. They were describing the risks faced and perhaps not the definition. There would certainly need to be vetting. You don't want someone to claim something inaccurately.
We do think that we work with folks under threat all the time, and there are actually some European countries that have some interesting emergency visa options for folks. Obviously, in the EU context, it's easier. Some of the European countries have been welcoming folks not from the EU. We have talked with policymakers in the US about whether that can be educational and informative for what it can look like here in the US. Can we expand some of the existing categories?
Aaron: This is very clearly a big problem, and one that will be challenging to address because of complexities, because of incentives, lots of reasons that we can't just wave a wand and fix it tomorrow. If there was one concrete step that we could take, we say, like the policy level, could take right now to make things better for people who are in real danger because they've been criticizing repressive regimes. What would be that one like, "Let's do this?"
Annie: This is a great question. As a policy person, I'm going to be like, "No, don't make me pick one." In terms of like, what will save a life tomorrow, it would be, let's get an emergency visa. If you're talking about pick one thing that would be most effective, I would say, let's do the definition so that we can start mandating training and outreach. That is, to the great credit of the U.S. government, that is happening pretty extensively, at least as compared to other democratic countries. The FBI, for example, has a whole webpage dedicated to transnational oppression. You can call the FBI hotline and report it. They are trying to do outreach to potentially targeted communities.
“In terms of like, what will save a life tomorrow, it would be, let's get an emergency visa. If you're talking about pick one thing that would be most effective, I would say, let's do the definition so that we can start mandating training and outreach. That is, to the great credit of the US government, that is happening pretty extensively, at least as compared to other democratic countries.”
There are some good-faith efforts already happening there. I think it's going to take years of work. This, it's going to sound strange that I say, this is an issue that makes me feel hopeful in a way that 20 years of other work doesn't. That is for two reasons. Number one, as I mentioned earlier, this is an issue where it so clearly shows the link between human rights abuses abroad and security and rights in your own country. The interest in this and the work on this is so bipartisan. That is not a small thing in this environment, as you at The UnPopulist know well.
The other thing about this that makes me so hopeful is the human rights defenders themselves. They have been through things we cannot fathom and they are still going. They have family members who have disappeared because of their work back in their home countries, or who are actively getting threats. They are actively getting threats and they are still going. To me, who am I to throw in the towel if they haven't? In that sense, it's going to take years, but here we are. We're ready to keep going.
“The other thing about this that makes me so hopeful is the human rights defenders themselves. They have been through things we cannot fathom and they are still going. They have family members who have disappeared because of their work back in their home countries, or who are actively getting threats. They are actively getting threats and they are still going. To me, who am I to throw in the towel if they haven't? In that sense, it's going to take years, but here we are. We're ready to keep going.”
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Zooming In at The UnPopulist. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to review us and Apple Podcasts and also check out ReImagining Liberty, our sister podcast at The UnPopulist, where I explore the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. Zooming In is a project of The UnPopulist.