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Five Questions on Transnational Repression

May 13, 2024
Christina Cottiero interviews Marcus Michaelsen

IGCC Blog
Marcus Michaelsen

Autocracies are increasingly targeting critics abroad. The governments of Russia and China are the most well-known perpetrators of transnational repression, but the practice goes beyond the great powers. Countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Rwanda, Yemen and many more are increasingly emboldened to silence or intimidate human rights activists or those deemed traitors to the regime outside their borders.

In this Q&A, Christina Cottiero, an affiliate with IGCC’s Future of Democracy initiative and assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, talks with Marcus Michaelsen, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, about his new paper with Kris Ruijgrok in the Journal Democratization entitled “Autocracy’s Long Reach: Explaining Host Country Influences on Transnational Repression”. Cottiero co-leads with Stephan Haggard a project on illiberal regimes and global governance at IGCC.

Transnational surveillance and repression is a growing challenge to democracy. What is transnational repression exactly? 

Transnational repression means that governments reach across their national borders to silence and punish dissent among exiles and diaspora populations. It is not a new phenomenon but has increased considerably as a result of globalization. Authoritarian regimes respond to intensified flows of information and migration by extending domestic political controls abroad, into the territory of other countries. They want to contain activists who might mobilize political protest and opposition from exile and quash critics who risk raising international attention to human rights violations and corruption. For this purpose, these regimes rely on a range of tactics, from abductions, physical assaults and assassinations, to Interpol listings and extradition requests. They also put pressure on family members in the home country of exiles. And they use different forms of digital repression, including invasive surveillance, online harassment and disinformation. Often these various methods are intertwined and build upon each other. 

To give an example, in 2018, researchers at the Citizen Lab discovered that the smartphone of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident living in Canada, was infected with a powerful spyware. Abdulaziz had become the target of threats and harassment from the Saudi regime for his social media activism. To blackmail and silence him, two government agents even brought one of his younger brothers from Saudi Arabia to a meeting in Montréal. Two of his brothers and some of his friends were arrested in Saudi-Arabia. The Pegasus surveillance tool on Abdulaziz’s smartphone, which the Saudi government had purchased from the Israeli NSO Group, gave the agents access to his personal files, emails, and chats. They were also able to monitor his communications and movements. As it happens, Abdulaziz was a close associate of Jamal Khashoggi, the exiled journalist who was brutally murdered in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018. Both men frequently discussed their ideas for how to achieve political change in their home country. It is quite likely that the Saudi regime decided to go ahead with the operation against Khashoggi after they had monitored these conversations. 

How do researchers track the international behavior of autocratic governments since presumably autocrats prefer to carry out repression in secret? 

Obviously, it is impossible to interview or observe regime agents involved in acts of transnational repression. Existing research relies on two principal types of data. The first is the reporting of incidents by the media and human rights organizations. These are also the sources for the Freedom House dataset, which we used for our paper. Of course, this approach also has some limitations. Perpetrators have strategic incentives to act in secrecy to forestall criticism and accountability, both at the domestic and international level. Especially in authoritarian contexts, the freedom of media and civil society organizations who could document transnational repression is restricted. The number of incidents in authoritarian host countries is likely much higher because it stays under the radar of public attention and is not captured by the database.

The second method to obtain information on transnational repression are interviews with political exiles and members of the targeted diaspora groups. Such interviews give a better understanding of the range of methods that regimes are using, including more subtle, everyday forms of repression, such as defamation and abuse on social media or threats from regime loyalists in the diaspora. Interviews also help uncover the effects of transnational repression, which often go beyond the immediate targeted person to intimidate entire communities, spreading fear and mistrust, disrupting social relations, and promoting self-censorship. 

Let me also mention a third approach to studying transnational repression: the use of archives and historical reconstruction, as Francesca Lessa has shown in her excellent book on Operation Condor and the violent persecution of exiles in South America in the 1970s. 

You report more than 800 incidents of cross-border repression between 2014 and 2020. Who were the major perpetrators and who are they targeting?

The first dataset of Freedom House documented 608 cases of direct, physical transnational repression. The most recent update identifies 854 incidents of physical transnational repression, committed by 38 origin states in 91 host countries, in the period from 2014 to 2022. The most prolific perpetrators are the governments of China, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, and Tajikistan. Among the targets of transnational repression are exiled human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents and former regime insiders, but also ethnic and religious minorities, like the Uyghurs, Kurds, or members of the Baha’i community. People who are threatened by the government of their origin country include recent refugees as well as second-generation immigrants. In our ongoing research at the Citizen Lab, we find that women exiles are disproportionally affected by online abuse and harassment as governments like Iran, Azerbaijan, or Eritrea weaponize gender stereotypes and misogyny to silence outspoken women. 

In your research, you find that authoritarian governments cooperate to repress dissidents outside their borders, whereas when the target of repression resides in a democratic country, autocrats tend to go after them independently. Can you give us some examples and explain what is happening and why? Are dissidents who flee to democracies safer?

Blatant, bold cases of direct physical repression against exiles residing in Western democracies typically raise media attention. Think of Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former Vietnamese parliamentarian and business man, who was abducted in broad daylight in the city center of Berlin in the summer 2017, or the forced landing of a commercial airplane by the Belarussian authorities to capture the exiled blogger Roman Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega. 

But in most cases of physical transnational repression perpetrators seek the cooperation of host state authorities as this brings less costs, attention, and reputational damage. And we find that the likelihood of transnational repression incidents that involve some sort of cooperation between the home and host state of exiles is higher in countries that are ruled by authoritarian governments. A shared disregard for human rights and a weak rule of law mean that authorities collaborate more readily in cases of politically motivated extradition requests or forced repatriation. International arrest warrants or agreements on mutual legal assistance between the two states allow them to create a semblance of legal process. Sometimes exiles also fall victim to higher-ranking political interests and shifting priorities. Turkey for some time provided an important sanctuary for Uyghurs fleeing the repression against their people in China’s Xinjiang region. In recent years, however, as it began building better relations with China, the government of President Erdogan arbitrarily detained Uyghurs and threatened them with deportation. 

In more democratic host states, on the other hand, the perpetrating governments find it more difficult to get authorities to cooperate. The rule of law and the guarantee of fundamental rights and asylum procedures establish a layer of protection for exiled dissidents. One consequence is that regimes resort to more subtle methods like digital threats and the harassment of home-country families. 

But there are still cases when authoritarian governments perceive exiles as threatening enough to justify the costs and potential repercussions of a direct physical attack. We find that, among exiles from autocratic countries, political activists, journalists, and former regime insiders—those with “voice”—are more likely to become targets of direct physical threats in liberal democracies than in any other regime type. This may be because, in democratic host countries, outspoken dissidents find better opportunities to voice their demands, build ties to media and policy circles, and leverage public opinion against their home state—and thus are more threatening to the regime. These direct attacks against targets in democracies are committed by some of the key perpetrators of transnational repression: Russia, China, Iran, and Rwanda. These governments engage in broad campaigns of transnational repression using a wide range of methods. When they perceive an exile as a threat and cannot rely on the cooperation of host state authorities, they directly attack their opponents in democracies, even at the risk of political, economic or reputational consequences. 

So, our findings may also serve as a warning: whereas the majority of transnational repression incidents occurs in authoritarian host states and exiles are generally safer when they live in a democracy, in some cases the costs for the perpetrators are still not high enough to deter them from physically attacking their nationals on the territory of a democratic state. What is more, these governments are also becoming bolder in their hunt for dissidents abroad and they are learning from each other. 

IGCC’s project on illiberal regimes and global governance has a particular interest in one finding from your paper. You found that authoritarian regimes are more likely to help each other repress critics abroad when they are within the same geographic region and members of the same regional organizations. Can you give us some examples of this phenomenon, and what it means for defenders of human rights and democracy in these “authoritarian neighborhoods”?

Authoritarian governments that are located in the same geographic region and members of the same regional organization are more likely to cooperate on transnational repression because of their strategic interest to be surrounded by governments of a similar regime type, existing ties among security agencies, and because of shared ideology. Often these regimes have limited interest in hosting exiles who criticize neighboring rulers and could act as transmitters of “dangerous” ideas. 

Our findings show, for example, that there is a higher probability for members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to cooperate on transnational repression, confirming the organization’s perceived role as a platform for authoritarian diffusion. China for instance has used the joint security and intelligence structures of the SCO to track down Uyghurs abroad. 

We could not confirm the same finding for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but suspect that many incidents in that region simply stay under the radar and are not captured by the database. Also, the long-standing security arrangements of the GCC member states include broadly formulated extradition agreements, which might dissuade dissidents from resettling to neighboring Gulf countries because they are already aware of the risks. The case of prominent women’s rights advocate Loujain Alhathloul is an unfortunate example of cooperation in the region. A Saudi national, Alhathloul lived in the United Arab Emirates and was surveilled by the UAE-based cybersecurity company Dark Matter before Abu Dhabi police captured and forcibly rendered her to Saudi Arabia where she was put in prison. 

Contrary to our expectations, membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) seems to increase the probability of a direct attack rather than cooperation among states to repress dissidents abroad. . When we looked closer into the data, we found that these findings were largely driven by a sequence of direct attacks between Thailand and Laos in 2016–19. For example, five high-profile Thai dissidents went missing in Laos and some were later found killed. A Lao human rights activist was disappeared in Bangkok. Although these incidents count as direct attacks, there seemed to be tacit understandings and involvement from authorities from both sides. 

Altogether our findings show that such authoritarian neighborhoods are high-risk zones for dissidents in search of refuge from their repressive home state. The host states that are most cooperative on transnational repression sit firmly within regions dominated by authoritarian rule or have ties to more than one authoritarian neighborhood. Authorities in Thailand and Russia have cooperated on transnational repression with five different origin countries during 2014–20, for Turkey (6) and the UAE (7) this number is even higher. 

For democratic governments, these findings highlight the crucial importance of effective asylum and resettlement procedures that provide protection against political persecution. The increasingly strict migration regimes and measures of border externalization of democracies push political emigrants farther away from the territory of liberal host states, which they need to reach as a precondition for securing refuge and protection. As a result, exiles often remain trapped in third countries within authoritarian neighborhoods, in closer reach of their repressive home state. For example, Turkey’s role as a gatekeeper for migration into the European Union means that emigrants from, say, Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan and recently also Russia get stuck on the territory of a state that has repeatedly tolerated and abetted attempts of transnational repression. Also, the British government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, whose government is itself a pertinent perpetrator of transnational repression, risks exposing dissidents fleeing repression in their home country to forced returns and other harms. 

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