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Candles lit by activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi Candles lit by activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are placed outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate, in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 25, 2018 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

The Movement to End Transnational Repression

Friday, July 30, 2021

When FBI agents first showed up at Masih Alinejad’s Brooklyn home to warn her that she was the target of an Iranian state-backed kidnapping plot, she was incredulous at first. As a journalist and outspoken critic of the regime in Tehran, she is accustomed to threats and harassment. But the brazenness of the plot was startling.

“What surprised me is the fact that the regime felt confident enough to resort to kidnapping me here, on American soil,” Alinejad told me in a direct message on Twitter. “I used to think I was safe here.” 

According to an indictment unsealed earlier this month, four Iranian nationals connected to the regime’s intelligence apparatus allegedly hired a private investigator to collect information on Alinejad while researching ways to lure her to a third country, where she could be captured or arrested and taken to Iran for imprisonment. While the FBI was able to intervene, the plot nonetheless upended Alinejad’s life, separating her from her home and family as she spent months moving from safe house to safe house. (Alinejad is not named in the indictment, but confirmed that she was the target of the plot in an interview with The New York Times.) 

Alinejad’s case is the latest high-profile instance of what human rights advocates are now calling “transnational repression,” a suite of strategies that certain governments use to intimidate and silence their critics who live overseas. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon, but its perpetrators—which include Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, North Korea and Rwanda—are getting bolder, and have more tools at their disposal. 

Some victims of transnational repression are hounded in online harassment campaigns or smeared in propaganda articles. Others are physically abused, targeted for deportation, flagged for international arrest, or followed and surveilled. Many live with the knowledge that their actions abroad could provoke authorities back home to target their families and friends.

Some high-profile cases, like the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul or the recent arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich after Belarusian authorities forced down his plane, were met with broad international condemnation and targeted sanctions. But such punitive measures don’t appear to be an effective deterrent. The plot against Alinejad is a case in point: As she told The New York Times, the Iranian operatives acted because they feared the impact of Alinejad’s activism more than they feared potential retaliation from the United States.

As a result, human rights advocates are increasingly pushing states to legislate against transnational repression at the national and international levels. “This is a topic that everyone who works in international human rights issues was aware of, but we didn’t have a common name for it,”’ Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy at Freedom House and co-author of its report on this topic, told me. This led the advocacy community to coalesce around the term “transnational repression” and emphasize that its prevention should be a global norm.

“There’s an emerging acknowledgement that this is a problem and it’s something we all need to be working on,” Schenkkan said. Previously, most work on transnational repression had been restricted to academia and focused on specific countries or regions, rather than looking at the global picture. “This is the first step, just to get everyone thinking about it as a shared problem and then working on what some solutions might be.” 

Inconsistent responses to transnational repression may lead repressive states to believe they won’t be held accountable for their crimes.

Currently, all states have a baseline international legal obligation to protect the human rights of those living within their territories, including non-citizens. It’s a responsibility that can be traced back to foundational human rights treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and 1966, respectively.

In Alinejad’s case, the FBI immediately put her under its protection once it identified a threat against her. But in many cases, governments are not so proactive; they may choose to prioritize competing national interests or the concealment of intelligence methods over the protection of an individual. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists is currently leading a lawsuit against the U.S. Intelligence Community to determine whether the American government knew about the threats against Jamal Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident, and failed to warn him. 

Too often, cases that look like transnational repression are not fully investigated or resolved. In March, the Azerbaijani video blogger Mahammad Mirzali, who has written critically of President Ilham Aliyev’s regime, was viciously attacked by knife-wielding assailants in France, where he lives in exile. The assault came after several other incidents targeting Mirzali and his family. Identifying threats and protecting dissidents can sometimes require more resources and technical capacity than a state has available, Schenkkan said. 

One problem is that repressive states are able to abuse international institutions and processes in order to reach their targets. For example, in asylum cases, host countries are often in touch with an applicant’s country of origin to determine whether or not they should be granted asylum. Sometimes, the country of origin manipulates this system by providing false or misleading information that causes the applicant’s request to be denied. Another frequently abused system is Interpol’s “Red Notice” list, which allows states to flag wanted individuals for extradition. Interpol is not able to properly vet all of the names on its list, so authoritarian states have long abused the system to detain and harass government critics. 

The global community should work both to reform international institutions like Interpol and to disseminate information on best practices that national governments can implement to protect dissidents and journalists living within their borders, Schenkkan said. Freedom House’s report also included a long list of recommendations for the United States, specifically, including updates to its foreign agent registration system and export restrictions on censorship and surveillance technologies. The U.S. is already pursuing some of these recommendations, including via the Transnational Repression and Accountability Act, reintroduced to Congress in May 2021, which tackles the abuse of Interpol’s systems.

The topic is gaining momentum in international diplomacy, too. The Washington Declaration, a formal statement of cooperation released by U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel two weeks ago, explicitly used the phrase “transnational repression,” naming it as one of several threats to an “open world.” 

But protecting human rights defenders from this kind of repression will also mean restoring pre-existing international norms that have eroded over the past decade and more, like those around refugee resettlement and countering impunity. Part of the reason activists are so vulnerable now is because states have neglected their responsibilities in other areas of human rights law—and these norms will take time and a great deal of willpower to rebuild. 

In the meantime, inconsistent responses to transnational repression may lead repressive states to believe they won’t be held accountable for their crimes. And in some cases, like Alinejad’s, they might be right. 

Similar violations have been taking place for years by the Islamic Republic of Iran against dissidents abroad,” she told me, pointing out that the abuses never seem to elicit strong condemnations. “It makes me wonder: Are we Iranians expected to silently suffer from such transnational repression?”

Prachi Vidwans is the associate editor of World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter at @PrachiVidwans.

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