On Transnational Repression

Recently, Yana Gorokhovskaia and Isabel Linzer of Freedom House published a piece with Foreign Affairs magazine on the topic of Transnational Repression.[1] Transnational Repression can be understood as “the efforts of governments to reach across borders to silence their critics.” Is this too broad a definition? Could this be extended to include critical foreign nationals who are not citizens of the critiqued state but could be repressed in their own state? Has this ever happened? Does this include collateral damage - or maybe 'secondary', or 'second level' transnational repression. For example, Dawn Sturgess, who was killed in the 2018 Amesbury Poisoning and attempted assassination by Novichok poisoning of former Russian officer and double agent Sergei Skripal.

In a new Freedom House report, Gorokhovskaia and Linzer find that safe spaces for dissent are rapidly shrinking around the world. Their report is based on a data set of 735 documented incidents of explicit transnational repression that occurred between 2014 and 2021. This is a huge and somewhat surprising amount from 2014-2021. Interestingly, these are only the "explicit" examples of transnational repression. I wonder what the criteria for an 'explicit' example of transnational repression, as opposed to an implicit or implied example? In their report, they show that authoritarian governments are increasingly working together to help locate, threaten, detain, and expel their critics.

The purpose of the article is to elucidate this and examine ways that such an illiberal cooperation can be offset. Is Illiberal international cooperation a different kind of collective/self-interest where the borders between the two are somewhat blurred? Does this defy the notion that, as some Liberal internationalists have claimed, that states can only find common interest in liberal or rational ends?[2]

The central argument of their piece, overall, is that: “If democracies want to shore up liberal values and human rights worldwide, they could start by welcoming those who are risking their lives to stand up to authoritarian regimes.” The central kernel of this claim is that asylum extension goes hand in hand with the upholding of human rights, housing dissidents. Would this not fall back on the age-old problem of eroding inter-state relations as a result of who asylum is granted to? E.g. (a) Pressure placed on the UK by the USSR over the Polish Government in Exile after critique following the 1943 uncovering of the Katyn Massacre, or (b) perhaps even the relations between the US and Ecuador over Julian Assange's long-term asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Would a realist logic not eventually follow? i.e., Asylum would be given so long as it didn’t hinder the prudence of national interest. The cases of Assange and Polish Government in Exile are good illustrations of this, as both host states were eventually required to succumb to the necessities of national interest and power politics.

“In 2021, the vast majority of incidents of transnational repression - 74 percent - were committed by authoritarian governments on the territory of other authoritarian states.” This undermines the self-determinate notion of territorial and jurisdictional integrity that illiberal democrats often demand be respected of their own states. Thus, even though (as shown above) the logic of sovereignty may will out, the very action of transnational repression undermines it. Thus, perhaps for the sake of sovereignty and its integrity, such repression should be reprehensible?[3] Of course, Illiberal democracies would not see an issue of agreeing to eliminate one another's critics, and this stems back to common/individual 'self'-interest. Beyond this, on a post-structural level, the aims of illiberal democratic regimes thus mutually construct both self and collective interest for the sake of their attempt at mutual perpetuity.

“In one notable case, Russia deported a mixed martial arts fighter who, according to Radio Free Europe, had already been beaten and shot with rubber bullets while in police custody in Belarus, even after the European Court of Human Rights (ECrtHR) issued an opinion prohibiting his repatriation because of concerns about torture. His was only one of 22 incidents last year in which Belarusians in Russia were detained, extradited, or threatened with extradition.” In no uncertain terms does this demonstrate the practical ineffectiveness of the ECrtHR and the manner in which authoritarian illiberal democratic states can, when engaging cooperatively to uphold their shared revisionist norms, outmanoeuvre the corpus of human rights law to the benefit of their respective regime. The question that must be asked perhaps, is if this plane on which a phenomenal emergence of a transnational Raison des gouvernants manifests?

Turkmenistan example. Can transnational repression become a tool of the regional politics of assistance in order to sure up regional order and strength in an increasingly multipolar world? Or even in Acharya’s ‘Multiplex Order’, whereby regional stability and strength are significant factors which contribute to the character of global order broadly?[4]

In May 2021 the government of the United Arab Emirates detained a teenage Chinese activist for some time who was simply in transit, i.e., going through the Dubai airport, and consequently the UAE allowed Chinese consular officials to try to coerce him into returning to China. Yet, complex interdependence should undermine the Necessity for UAE to will to do this though? If the Liberal Assessment is correct? No? Especially given the extent to which the UAE is plugged into the web of interconnectedness that complex interdependence creates. Or can you have competing complex interdependences which are not necessarily all of a liberal nature?

Turkey is very much becoming a convergence site for such kind of activity, where we are even now seeing a reversal of what we would consider traditional Turkish foreign policy in the normative sense. “For instance, Turkey was a long-time safe haven for Uyghurs, but it has recently become a dangerous place for the Uyghur diaspora. In 2021, Turkish authorities harassed groups of Uyghur activists by arresting them and threatening them with deportation to China.” This is a qualitative change therefore. Turkey has transpired to be not quite the haven for Islam it preaches itself to be. This means, or at very perhaps reveals or teases, that Turkey sees its national interest as lying closer to China and good relations with China than with the normative dimension of the Muslim world perhaps?

“Autocrats are increasingly working together to help locate, detain, and expel their critics.” This quotation entails within it all of the questions discussed already concerning an inverted liberal internationalism. By this I intend to mean an illiberal internationalism, which is a new phenomenon in itself - as the revisionist powers of the 1930s were connected by a loose ideological framework - as opposed to 'strongman politics', which is less ideological than it is merely illiberal. Although they do share illiberal values, the extent to which this is more of a bind than political expediency and convenience as an extension of Raison des gouvernants, remains questionable.

In April 2021, a Turkish court agreed to transfer the trial being held in connection with the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist, to the same Saudi authorities who had been implicated in his killing. This was a turning point and illustrated the selective use of sovereignty and intervention - but perhaps this is the world that was opened with an international politics defined by intervention in the 1990s, as Phillip Cunliffe explores with his discourse concerning ‘inverted revisionism’?[5] Intervention by friendly regimes is not considered intervention, or, rather, is considered as transactional - gaining power or influence for the self-erosion of territorial sovereignty.

“These parallel trends converge to form an ominous forecast: autocrats will have more and more opportunities to cooperate moving forward.” The question that I would put to the authors of the article however, would be: is this not the world that Liberalism willed to create - a world of cooperating states - no? Cooperation is often pre-emptively conceptualised as liberal cooperation, based upon the egotistical individualism of nation states to bettering their condition of democracy, liberty and prosperity in itself; as opposed to cooperation based on a Raison des gouvernants, or rather, the egotistical traits of an administration to either remain in power or silence opposition, at almost any cost.

“Citizens of Belarus and Central Asia go to Russia, where they do not need a visa to enter. People escaping Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam often cross the border into neighbouring Thailand. Uyghurs leave China by escaping to Egypt or Turkey. These places are attractive because they are accessible—but although they may provide short-term refuge, they do not offer long-term protection.” The claim here is that granting accessibility is what is required by liberal states, i.e., to make the dissenters of other states’ entrance into one’s own state: (a) increasingly possible, (b) increasingly likely, and (c) the process that permits (a) and (b) increasingly fluid. Again, this could cause issues in relations with such states engaging in acts of transnational repression. Illiberal democracies are not 'small states nobody has heard of', they are states which cannot be ignored, and so this tension will come to define the coming era(s).

“Living in a robust democracy, with strong legal systems and high levels of security, is by far the best protection against transnational repression.” Is this conception of a ‘robust democracy’ too loose? What is robust democracy? Is Hungary a Robust Democracy – with an aggregate score of 69/100, deemed only ‘Partly Free’? Is Ukraine – gaining only 61/100? Or India for that matter – scoring only 66/100? Is this not a short-hand for simply suggesting that any non-western democracy, or any semi-democracy for that matter, is not a 'robust' democratic system?

“To meet the challenge of global authoritarianism, democracies must change their approach to asylum.” Here we see the core of the argument. Accessibility of migration to liberal democracies appears to serve as a mechanism towards the protection of dissent against the threat of transnational repression.

“Rwanda is controlled by an authoritarian regime and is itself an active perpetrator of transnational repression.” This is Interesting, as in the Latest Freedom House ‘Freedom in The World’ Index, Rwanda has a score of 22/100: an 8 for Political Rights and a 14 for Civil Liberties.[6] Rwandans abroad experience digital threats, spyware attacks, family intimidation and harassment, mobility controls, physical intimidation, assault, detention, rendition, and assassination. The government has physically targeted Rwandans in at least seven countries since 2014, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Kenya, as well as farther afield in South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Germany.[7]

This is a significant point. In light of this recent history concerning the attempted extradition and outsourcing of asylum seekers who had illegally crossed the channel on small boats to Rwanda, the United Kingdom should be fully aware that its decision to offshore its responsibility for the asylum process will only aid authoritarian governments seeking to target dissidents by consigning political refugees to the care of an authoritarian state, whilst equally setting a precedent for doing so.

These tools, such as the Red Notices issued by the International Criminal Police Organization, which inform member countries about internationally wanted fugitives, are increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to legally detain and extradite dissidents. But to meet the bigger challenge of rising global authoritarianism, especially as nondemocratic governments increasingly cooperate to stifle dissent, democracies must first and foremost change their approach to asylum. Discussed above, that the tools of liberal internationalism have become part of the very toolkit of illiberal democratic systems. Is this the condoning of a new bipolar order in the construction? A liberal or Neoliberal will for the division of states on a structural level of power polarity? Again, perhaps the broad warnings laid bare in Herz’s behaviourist 'Security Dilemma' are lost once again?[8]

“As long as democratic governments enact ever more restrictive policies on asylum, they will continue to trap vulnerable people in parts of the world where autocrats make the rules.” A question I would pose is to the extent that such an action, openly undertaken, would cause unintended consequences? Would this be, in the vein of the Conservative Philosopher Michael Oakeshott, ‘a cure’ that may indeed be worse than ‘the disease’?[9]

I mean this not in regards to the level of 'Slippery Slope argument' or the straw-man of 'open borders', but the effect that such an act could have: (a) diplomatically - on individual relations with other states, (b) systemically - as to the extent this could adapt the development of the global power structure into a distinct and unfamiliar structural, or even security, constellation [NATO and Turkey might be key in this, to prevent a bloc of revisionist powers from erupting in response and thus eschewing in a new Manichean era of bipolarity. Turkey's security must be ensured by NATO to keep it on side, but then becomes the weak link that can allow itself to be abused for influence]; (c) economically - collapsing trade and production that the Core states have made (interestingly) themselves dependent on, by making others dependent on their dependence; and, lastly (d) domestic 'blow-back' - the Trump and Putin effect, whereby illiberal democrats gain political traction by exploiting the situation caused by a lack of connection with those illiberal authoritarian states, arguing that such a policy is 'madness' or 'limits opportunity', causing many to, in turn, gain a sense of sympathy for illiberal in a tribal or reflective way, as we can see has happened somewhat with the war in Ukraine and misinformation/sympathy for the Russian State on Social Media by Republicans and Right Wingers in the UK or those in Europe that depend on Russian energy and product imports.[10]

[1] Yana Gorokhovskaia and Isabel Linzer (June 2nd 2022) ‘The Long Arm of Authoritarianism: How Dictators Reach Across Borders to Shut Down Dissent’. foreignaffairs.com. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2022-06-02/long-arm-authoritarianism. (Accessed 2nd July 2022). All quotations un-referenced in this text are drawn from this reference.

[2] My mind is drawn to Liberal or Positivist thinkers of state cooperation within the state-system. See: Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye (1989) Power and Interdependence. Second Edition. London: Harper Collins; Robert Axelrod (1984) The Evolution of Cooperation, New York: Basic Books; Paul Samuelson (1961) Economics. New York: McGraw Hill, pp.506-507. See also: David E. Spiro (1988) ‘The State of Cooperation in Theories of State Cooperation: The Evolution of a Category Mistake’. Journal of International Affairs, 42(1): 205-225 [Especially 208].

[3] My mind is taken to Karl Popper’s ‘Paradox of Toleration’, whereby Popper claims an open society should not tolerate the kind of intolerance that seeks to expel the very notion of tolerance from the values of political society as a whole. To defend tolerance, one must be intolerant of those who seek to rid us of tolerance altogether. See: Karl Popper (2012) The Open Society and Its Enemies, London: Routledge, p. 581. In international relations, such a discussion of precisely such a paradox becomes manifests most cogently in discussions of ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ and the manner in which such a principle seeks to uphold a given conception of sovereignty through its very undermining or overturning.

[4] Amitav Acharya (2014) The End of American World Order. Cambridge: Polity Press. [Especially Chapter 1]; (2017) ‘After Liberal Hegemony: The Advent of a Multiplex World Order’. Ethics and International Affairs, 31 (3): 271-285.

[5] Phillip Cunliffe (2020) Cosmopolitan Dystopia: International Intervention and The Failure of The West. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[6] Freedom House (2022) ‘Global Freedom Scores: Countries and Territories’. freedomhouse.org. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores (Accessed 2nd July 2022).

[7] Freedom House (2021) ‘Rwanda: Transnational Repression Origin Country Case Study’. freedomhouse.org. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/report/transnational-repression/rwanda (Accessed 2nd July 2022).

[8] John H. Herz (1950) ‘Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma’. World Politics, 2(2): 157-180.

[9] Michael Oakeshott (1962) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Meuthen. p. 169.

[10] Lauren Fedor (March 26th 2022) ‘Pro-Putin Republicans break ranks by heaping praise on Kremlin’. Ft.com. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/fd870fa9-007a-4cd4-bffc-d72aa2a35767 (Accessed 2nd July 2022); Holly Baxter (February 25th 2022) ‘Nigel Farage made the most awkward speech of his career as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine’. independent.co.uk. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/nigel-farage-cpac-speech-putin-ukraine-b2023741.html (Accessed 2nd July 2022); William Wilkes, Vanessa Dezem, and Alexander Weber (25th June 2022) ‘Putin Is Pushing Germany’s Economy to the Breaking Point’. bloomberg.com. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-25/germany-risks-major-economic-disruption-from-russia-s-gas-squeeze (Accessed 2nd July 2022).