It has been five years since the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and not much has changed. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to have ordered his brutal killing, continues to be feted around the world. Calls for an independent investigation into the killing have been ignored. The kingdom’s crackdown on dissent continues apace.
Meanwhile, transnational repression continues elsewhere. Last month, the Canadian government announced that it was investigating “credible allegations” that the Indian government was behind the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh activist and Canadian citizen. The allegations sparked a diplomatic firestorm. Canada, after all, was accusing a fellow (albeit flawed) democracy of engineering an extraterritorial killing on its soil in a clear violation of Canadian sovereignty, to say nothing of international human-rights law. India has vehemently denied responsibility, and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat in retaliation.
While India’s culpability remains to be seen (the Canadian government has not publicized the intelligence supporting its claim). But that the allegations have been leveled at all reflects a grim new trend: one in which repressive states seek to silence dissenting diasporic voices—among them journalists, human rights activists, and minority groups—using tactics of intimidation, kidnapping, and worse.
From 2014 to 2022, the democracy watchdog Freedom House recorded 854 incidents of transnational repression perpetrated by 38 governments across 91 countries. (Their database, which is updated annually, will incorporate cases from 2023 later this year.) Detention, in which individuals are held for more than 12 hours at the request of their country of origin, is the most common tactic of transnational repression, accounting for roughly 40% of Freedom House’s recorded cases. Unlawful deportation, which entails the forcible return of an individual to their country of origin where they are liable to be subject to persecution, is the second-most common (21%). Violent attacks, including assassinations and attempted assassinations, are more rare, accounting for just 10% of cases.
What is transnational repression?
While transnational repression is a relatively new term, the phenomenon it describes is not. “As long as there have been political exiles, governments have tried to track them down,” says Yana Gorokhovskaia, the research director for strategy and design at Freedom House and an expert on transnational repression. Indeed, transnational repression stretches back decades, from the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico on the orders of Joseph Stalin to the Pinochet regime’s 1973 murder of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in a car bombing in Washington, D.C. But the reach and scale of transnational repression has grown in the last decade plus, aided and abetted by new tactics and technologies that make it easier for repressive states to reach exiles residing in even the safest and most remote of countries.
Of the most prolific perpetrators of transnational repression, China stands in a league of its own. Roughly a quarter of the cases recorded by Freedom House originate from China and incorporate a wide variety of tactics, from rendition (which involves an individual being forcibly repatriated to their country of origin without a legal process) and detention to digital surveillance and coercion by proxy (in which an individual’s family or loved ones who reside in their country of origin is targeted by the state). “It’s the most comprehensive and wide-ranging campaign of transnational oppression,” Gorokhovskaia says. While much of Beijing’s efforts focus on individuals—among them journalists and pro-democracy activists as well as their families—entire communities such as Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers have also been targeted. “That mirrors what’s happening at home,” Gorokhovskaia adds, noting that “typically the group that we see repressed at home are also the group that are targeted abroad.”
While the aforementioned tactics are ubiquitous, it’s often the more extreme forms of transnational repression that attract the most attention and condemnation. Recall, for example, the Kremlin’s poisoning of Russian defectors Alexander Litvinenko and, less successfully, Sergei Skripal in Britain. Perhaps the most high-profile example of transnational repression in recent years was the assassination of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—a murder that stood out for its brutality, as well as its brazenness. Khashoggi had long been a cautious critic of his native Saudi Arabia’s government policies in the Western press. As much as his killing was meant to silence his criticisms, it also served as a warning to others.
“Every individual act [of transnational repression] obviously impacts the person and their families, but it also sends a message,” Gorokhovskaia says. “It says that you’re vulnerable, you can be silenced, you can be reached; that this is the price that you pay.”
What democracies can do
Five years on from Khashoggi’s death, and two years since the U.S. released its intelligence assessment that MBS had approved Khashoggi’s killing (a verdict that the Saudi government rejects), U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” remains unfulfilled. Other state-sponsors of transnational repression, such as China and Turkey, continue to enjoy diplomatic and trading relationships with Western democracies while simultaneously targeting their diasporas within those countries.
“There isn’t a lot of accountability for these acts,” Gorokhovskaia says, noting that even if the Canadian government’s accusations against the Indian government were proven to be true, it would unlikely amount to any kind of repercussions, especially given New Delhi’s status as an important strategic and trading partner to many countries, as well as a bulwark against China.
But democracies are not without leverage, and some are already demonstrating ways in which their governments can respond. In the U.S., for example, the FBI has adopted a definition of transnational repression in an effort to better track and prosecute the phenomenon, and even created a website for victims of transnational repression to report efforts by foreign governments to stalk, intimidate, or assault people within the U.S. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that, if passed, would make it U.S. policy to hold foreign governments and individuals who “stalk, intimidate, or assault people across borders, including in the United States” accountable and would establish countering transnational repression a foreign policy priority.
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Meanwhile, in the U.K., the British government established its Defending Democracy Taskforce last year, which among other things is tasked with addressing foreign efforts to stifle free expression in the U.K.’s diaspora communities. Last year, it was revealed that the Chinese government had begun establishing overseas “police stations” in Britain and across many other Western democracies in an apparent effort to monitor and exert control over its nationals residing overseas.
But so long as democracies continue to foster close relationships with the perpetrators of transnational repression, exiles living within their societies may never feel completely safe. “It’s definitely a national security issue, but this is also a human rights issue,” Gorokhovskaia says, noting that targeted diaspora communities “are not able to enjoy all the freedoms and rights that other people living in a democracy are able to enjoy. We need to move past just this national security response and really think about human rights obligations that governments owe to people who live in their countries.”