Protecting Dissidents Is Good Foreign Policy

Democracy Examined

Exiled dissidents are at the forefront of the global struggle between democratic protest movements and authoritarian regimes. The US can do more to help them.

The United States’ track record in encouraging democratic transition is, well, complicated. Let’s just say that citizens of South Korea and Iraq can have conflicting opinions about American intervention.

It’s no surprise that the United States would still like to see foreign dictators lose their grip on power to pro-democracy movements, but the government is wary about getting too involved. The answer to that problem might be somewhere in your neighborhood.

Thousands of exiled political activists call the United States their adoptive home, having been forced to flee oppressive regimes for activities like uncovering corruption, organizing protests, or leading opposition campaigns. A few decades ago, going into exile might have meant taking a step toward irrelevance. Now, digital tools are keeping dissidents plugged into protest movements—and the protest movements plugged into their ongoing work—like never before. Yet as dissidents abroad have gained tools to coordinate against authoritarian regimes, those same regimes are weaponizing the digital space against them.

In 2022 Freedom House recorded 79 instances of transnational repression, the systematic assault on exiled dissidents by governments dead set on silencing them. That figure is undoubtedly an undercount, with many dissidents forced into silence out of fear of retaliation. Beyond these specific cases is the larger, murky world of intimidation and surveillance with countries like China investing billions of dollars to monitor the activities of citizens abroad.

Last week, RDI hosted a conference on combating transnational repression, partnering with Freedom House, PEN America, AEI, and the Bush Institute, among other organizations. Over the course of two days, more than 100 political dissidents and NGO experts met in Washington, DC to coordinate their efforts and discuss how the US can live up to its status as a safe haven for activists. The progress the United States has made over the past few years is encouraging, maybe even world-leading, but there is certainly more left to do.

The Rise of Transnational Repression

Transnational repression is hardly something new, but it’s only in the past decade that governments around the world have been able to massively ramp up their efforts and take advantage of new online technologies.

Sometimes, these efforts are brazen.

Masih Alinejad, the Iranian American journalist, joined us having spent the last year moving between 11 FBI safe houses following an attempt on her life in Brooklyn by an assassin sent by Iran. That attempt came a year after the FBI uncovered an audacious plot to kidnap her from New York and place her on a speed boat to Venezuela where she would be flown to Iran for a show trial and execution. Alinejad said that after the most recent attempt on her life the FBI asked her to go into witness protection, meaning she would get a new identity and disappear. She wholeheartedly refused, deciding that if Iran wanted to silence her by killing her, then she wouldn’t let herself be silenced by fear.

But foreign harassment can take many shapes, often less overt and newsworthy. Those in attendance reflected the wide world of transnational repression.

Anna Kwok of Hong Kong was one of eight activists who the government placed international bounties on their heads of HK$1 million ($127,656) this past July.

Enes Freedom, the professional basketball player from Turkey, was the subject of an Interpol Red Notice request from the government of Recep ​​Erdoğan.

Jinrey Zhang, a law student at Georgetown, joined a DC protest against draconian COVID policies in China, leading to his family back home to be detained and interrogated by the police.

Carine Kanimba, the daughter of Rwandan activist Paul Rusesabagina depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda, discovered that she was being monitored with Pegasus spyware.

Zhou Fengsuo, a Tiananmen Square student organizer, had his Zoom account shut off after the CCP threatened to outlaw Zoom in the country unless he was kicked off the platform. (Zoom later reinstated his account after the news went public.)

These activists haven’t forgotten about the causes that forced them into exile, so the governments they challenged haven’t forgotten about them either.

The American Response

To give credit where it is due, the United States government is taking this seriously. Stopping the harassment of people critical of governments like that of Iran and China seems to be about the last thing that can unite Republicans and Democrats.

In 2021 Congress passed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act, aimed at limiting the abuse of Interpol notices which governments have tried to use to have their critics abroad arrested.

The FBI is taking the lead in law enforcement of specific cases. It is working closely with activists who have been threatened, logging and investigating their cases while also offering protection to those at particular risk (Masih Alinejad and Enes Freedom high-fived during a panel when they realized that they both had FBI-issued panic buttons.) The FBI launched a microsite on transnational repression, publishing instances and providing information on how to get into touch with agents.

Still, there is more left to do. In an October report, the Government Accountability Office outlined how different departments in the federal government can adapt their policies to limit transnational repression. But problems persist, particularly as the various agencies have yet to agree on a common definition. Worryingly, the report noted that “FBI officials said gaps in U.S. law limit their ability to counter” transnational repression.

One thing that Congress can do immediately is pass the Transnational Repression Policy Act. Introduced by a bipartisan group of senators in March, the bill would increase the ability of the government to pursue criminal proceedings for cases of transnational repression and employ sanctions against guilty parties abroad. According to the office of Senator Merkley, “the bill would also help elevate countering transnational repression as a key foreign policy priority of the United States,” while requiring consistent reporting on how it is evolving.

Unfortunately, since the bill was introduced in March it has been sitting largely undiscussed. While the bill’s contents are hardly controversial, Congress has had its attention elsewhere.

The US can do more to help protect these activists and enable them to continue to do their work advocating for democratic freedoms around the world. We don’t just have an obligation to keep those seeking refuge in the US safe—we also have a distinct desire to see them win. Passing the bipartisan Transnational Repression Policy Act is an obvious next step.