Over the past 15 years, democracy has regressed nearly everywhere in the world, capped off by troubling developments in the United States. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index found that the past year witnessed “an unprecedented rollback of global freedoms,” but this pattern has been going on for more than a decade. Meanwhile, authoritarian powers such as China, Russia and Turkey are becoming both more autocratic at home and more influential on the world stage.
Indeed, autocratic states are flexing their muscles outside their borders. In a disturbing new trend, chronicled in reports by Freedom House and other organizations, authoritarian states such as China, Russia and Rwanda have begun repressing their citizens even when those people are living outside their borders. Indeed, Freedom House found that 31 countries had used transnational repression in 79 host countries since 2014. (Full disclosure: I serve as a consultant for Freedom House’s annual survey of global freedom.)
Transnational repression is undertaken in many different forms, and appears to be expanding. Sometimes, authoritarian states kidnap dissidents and other activists in other countries and bring them back home to face (usually unfair) trials or other punishments.
Paul Ruesabagina, who played a central role in protecting people at a hotel in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994 (Don Cheadle played Ruesabagina in 2004’s award-winning “Hotel Rwanda”) and later became a staunch opponent of Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, was apparently tricked into believing he was flying to Burundi. Instead, he was reportedly taken to Rwanda by the country’s intelligence bureau and detained. His story has since been covered by a number of international media outlets.
In another example that made global headlines earlier this year, Belarus — often called the last autocracy in Europe — forced a Ryanair plane flying through Belorussian airspace to land in Minsk. Once the aircraft was on the ground, police arrested a passenger named Roman Protasevich, a prominent opposition journalist.
But many kidnappings — also known as renditions — by authoritarian states do not attract such international media attention. Freedom House found that in recent years the Turkish government had rendered 58 people, from 17 different countries, back to Turkey, likely to be arrested for opposing the government. Few of these cases got any international attention.
Iran has also been suspected of regularly rendering Iranians living overseas, even when those very same Iranians have been granted asylum abroad. In one example that was featured in the Washington Post, Iran in 2019 allegedly kidnapped an opposition journalist named Ruhollah Zam, who had been granted permission to live as a refugee in France. Smuggled into Iran and given an unfair trial, Zam was executed in late 2020.
Meanwhile, China has been accused of abusing Interpol’s “red notice” protocols, a system by which countries utilize international anti-crime networks to ask other states to detain criminals so they can be extradited.
However, Human Rights Watch has noted that Beijing has repeatedly issued “politically motivated” red notices to get other states to detain and extradite dissidents, people who are not necessarily actual criminals. In one such case, a Chinese activist who also participated in the Falun Gong movement was detained in Poland after an Interpol red notice was filed against him by Beijing.
In other cases, authoritarian governments use secretive surveillance tactics to monitor activists living abroad, often taking advantage of the ubiquity of digital technology such as China’s global WeChat app. Sometimes these surveillance tactics are then used to harass exiles and threaten violence against them or their relatives living back in the authoritarian state.
Some autocracies also appear to be overseeing campaigns of violent attacks and even attempted murders of regime opponents outside their borders. This has become easier as their intelligence services have become more sophisticated and as democracies have turned inward, focused more on their own problems.
Most famously, the U.K. government has accused Moscow of trying to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy turned double agent living in the United Kingdom in 2018, and later of attacking Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who also lived in the United Kingdom. Skripal survived but Litvinenko died in London, with his cause of death ruled to be radiation poisoning.
U.S. intelligence agencies, among others, have accused Saudi Arabia’s top leaders of ordering the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.
But these are only a handful of many cases — most of which get little attention. Freedom House’s report found that there have been more than 200 violent attacks on Chinese dissidents outside China since 2014.
Meanwhile, a number of prominent Thai dissidents have vanished — kidnapped or killed — in recent years in neighboring states. In one gruesome case, picked up by Human Rights Watch, the bodies of two Thai dissidents that washed up in the Mekong River in early 2019 were found to have been disemboweled and had their insides filled with concrete.
To be sure, even countries that consider themselves full democracies have employed similar tactics in the past. In the period just after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies, often working with trusted partners, grabbed alleged terrorists out of countries and transferred them to Central Intelligence Agency “black sites,” or secret prisons, where they vanished from public view and in some cases were reportedly tortured. However, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the black sites closed.
With countries around the world now largely focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and its debilitating economic impacts, few are paying much attention to the reported rise in transnational repression. The United States, for instance, continues to hand over people wanted by China on red notices, even though some of these individuals do not fit the red notice definition of what constitutes a criminal and could face brutal punishment when they are returned home.
Some U.S. congresspeople, rights activists and White House officials are reconsidering how the United States handles red notices from China via Interpol, as are other democracies, but no firm decisions have been made.
Meanwhile, other countries also could apply greater scrutiny to red notices, or other efforts by authoritarian powers to extradite their citizens, especially when those citizens are journalists or activists. Similarly, countries could apply stricter scrutiny to social media platforms originating in authoritarian states that create the possibility for those governments to track citizens around the world. They also could ask their police and intelligence agencies to focus more clearly on efforts to kidnap exiles.
For now, however, there is little evidence that leaders and average people are focused on the issue of transnational repression, and so authoritarian powers, for the time being, look likely to expand their global efforts.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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