Perspectives April 6, 2023
More Governments Finding New Ways to Silence Exiled Voices
Since 2014, the number of governments that use violence and intimidation to try to silence critical voices abroad has grown. As of the end of 2022, 38 governments targeted people in 91 countries around the world with direct, physical forms of transnational repression —when governments silence dissent among diaspora and exile communities, including by means of assassination, assault, detention, unlawful deportation, and rendition. This is the key finding of Still Not Safe: Transnational Repression in 2022, a report released today by Freedom House.
The report is based on a database of 854 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression. This database—which excludes nonphysical tactics like digital harassment, spyware, and coercion of family members—represents a conservative snapshot of a global threat to human rights, democracy, and sovereignty. According to Freedom House’s data, China, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, and Tajikistan remain the most prolific perpetrators of this repression, together accounting for 63 percent of all incidents recorded since January 2014.
The world’s worst perpetrators
China’s campaign of transnational repression is unparalleled in scope and scale. Not only does the government target both entire diasporas and individual activists, it also employs an exceptionally wide range of tactics. To harass and spy on activists in the US, for example, Chinese intelligence agents allegedly hired a private investigator to gain access to restricted government information through a contact at the Department of Homeland Security. In Turkey, Chinese agents routinely attempt to recruit exiled Uyghurs to surveil others in the Uyghur diaspora. People transiting through, visiting, or living in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have been detained and threated with deportation based on requests made by Beijing.
Further, the Chinese government has expanded its arsenal of tactics to silence dissent abroad. Recent reports have emerged of Chinese officials using a tactic called “swatting”: falsely reporting to local police that a targeted individual made dangerous threats. In October of last year, a young Chinese activist living in the Netherlands—who had been detained in a Dubai airport in 2021 based on a request made by Beijing—gave media interviews about Chinese police stations in Europe. Days later, the Chinese embassy contacted the police and falsely accused him of making bomb threats.
Other origin countries have doubled down on established methods of reaching across borders. Turkey’s government has abducted more people from abroad than any other in Freedom House’s database. Since the July 2016 coup attempt against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara has relentlessly pursued exiles associated with the Gülen and Kurdish movements. In September 2022, Turkey’s intelligence services kidnapped a businessman from Azerbaijan who was allegedly a member of the Gülen movement, accusing him of terrorism.
In countries where cross-border abductions are harder to accomplish, Turkish authorities have sought to pressure governments into handing over targeted individuals. After Sweden and Finland applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in May of last year, Turkey refused to support their application unless Sweden detained and rendered a set of wanted individuals, including several journalists. Turkish journalists working in Europe continue to face intimidation and assault.
Cooperating for the sake of harm
Authoritarian governments have increasingly cooperated to facilitate repression across borders. In 71 percent of the incidents that took place last year, both the origin and host state were rated as Not Free by Freedom House.
As Russia pursues a war of aggression in Ukraine, the Kremlin has continued to help neighboring autocrats silence their critics inside the country. In 2022, the government of Tajikistan used long-established security cooperation with Moscow to doggedly pursue members of the Pamiri diaspora living in Russia. After cracking down on protests in Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), Tajikistani authorities rendered 11 exiles, who had been critical of Dushanbe’s “antiterror campaign” in the GBAO region, from Russia to stand trial. Because Russia withdrew from the Council of Europe (CoE) and is now outside the purview of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), individuals facing unlawful deportation or extradition from the country cannot appeal to the body for protective measures.
Protecting rights in the face of these challenges
Democratic governments, though, have begun to pay more attention to the threat posed by transnational repression. In early 2023, a bipartisan group of United States senators introduced the Transnational Repression Policy Act, a bill that outlines a comprehensive approach to countering extraterritorial targeting by foreign governments.
But despite this growing awareness, domestic and international accountability remains rare, and practices of transnational repression continue to spread and evolve. A diverse set of countries, from Belarus to Nicaragua, disregard national borders and human rights norms to silence critical voices wherever they may be. Effectively countering transnational repression requires a combination of policies that punish origin states, protect the right to asylum, and prioritize respect for human rights in all diplomatic relationships.