Authoritarianism Doesn’t Stop at the Water’s Edge

An expert’s point of view on a current event.

Authoritarianism Doesn’t Stop at the Water’s Edge

The spectacle of a government using fighter jets to forcibly divert a commercial flight in order to snatch a dissident journalist has sent shockwaves around the globe. Belarus’s brazen violation of the norms of civil aviation to arrest the journalist Roman Protasevich has prompted a flurry of condemnations and countermeasures, including airlines avoiding Belarusian airspace and banning the country’s national airline. But while the tactic of faking a bomb threat to force down a plane flying over the country, orchestrated by Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko, is novel, the strategy behind it is becoming alarmingly widespread.

In a globalized world, authoritarian regimes are increasingly seeking to consolidate their control by making it impossible for persecuted critics, writers, and dissidents to find safe refuge abroad. The long arm of state repression is increasingly unconstrained by international borders, respect for sovereignty, or international treaties that govern areas including commercial aviation.

With the rise of social media and other channels of communication and outreach, exiled and expatriate activists and thinkers have more tools available to sustain a high media profile, organize, and reach audiences even after being forced to flee their home countries. The influence these figures can wield has prompted authoritarian governments to adopt new techniques of surveillance, harassment, and even physical interdiction. They aim to send the message that those who dare challenge their authority are not safe anywhere.

Authoritarian governments aim to send the message that those who dare challenge their authority are not safe anywhere.

According to a 2021 report from Freedom House, there have been at least 608 cases of physical cross-border repression—including detentions, deportations, and assassinations—since 2014. Some of these cases involve politically motivated reprisals with human rights implications.

Freedom House reports that, in many instances, tyrannical governments lean on cooperative neighbors and partners to abet their abuses through renditions and illicit transfers that force dissidents back home without technically violating sovereign territory.

Targeted killings and other forms of extraterritorial buccaneering are not new. World War I was sparked after Austria-Hungary accused Serbia of masterminding the assassination of its heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Bosnian Serb nationalist.

In 1982, South Africa’s apartheid government assassinated exiled activist Ruth First in Mozambique with a parcel bomb sent to her office. A spate of high-profile cases now indicate that similar tactics are becoming commonplace.

The goriest and most galling, of course, is that of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was butchered into pieces in 2018 after being lured into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi wasn’t the first Saudi critic to be targeted abroad. In 2017, the activist Mohammed Abdullah al-Otaibi was apprehended by Qatari security forces at the Doha airport as he attempted to board a flight to Norway. He was sent to Saudi Arabia, where he is now serving a 17-year sentence. A year later, the poet Nawaf al-Rasheed was similarly nabbed and rendered from a Kuwaiti airport, and then held in Saudi Arabia for nearly a year.

Iran has been among the most brazen offenders when it comes to the menacing and murder of its antagonists, no matter where they may have fled.

China has long eschewed international borders when it comes to repression of ethnic minorities including Uyghurs and Tibetans living in exile communities. And in a notorious 2015 incident, two Hong Kong-based booksellers known for selling salacious volumes about Beijing’s leaders were abducted and taken to the Chinese mainland to be charged with subversion, including one who was kidnapped while vacationing in Thailand and is still being held incommunicado. They were detained along with three other colleagues who had ventured into the mainland on what were intended to be short visits.

In early 2016, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced the establishment of an “overseas fugitive affairs” department, with Li Gongjin, team leader of the Shanghai police’s economic crimes unit, saying, “A fugitive is like a kite. The body is overseas, but the thread is inside China. Through family and friends, [we] can always find them.”

Iran has been among the most brazen offenders when it comes to the menacing and murder of its antagonists, no matter where they may have fled. In October 2019, the activist and journalist Ruhollah Zam, who had found refuge in France, traveled to Iraq, where he was kidnapped, taken to Iran, tried, and executed by hanging late last year. The reach of Iranian repression has also extended to the United States. The prominent New York-based women’s rights advocate Masih Alinejad, founder of the “White Wednesdays” online campaign against the hijab, and other Iranian feminists in the United States have faced an ongoing campaign of retaliation by the Iranian government.

Iranian clerics have posted videos on social media targeting Alinejad and comparing her to the novelist Salman Rushdie, the subject of a 1989 fatwa that forced him into years of hiding. Iran has also gone after Alinejad’s family back home, arresting her brother and sentencing him to eight years in jail for collusion, apparently based on her activities.

Rwanda is another serial offender, targeting dissidents in more than half a dozen countries since 2014. The Rwandan government engages in surveillance and repression against those who contest the government’s account of the 1994 genocide and subsequent rebuilding of the country under President Paul Kagame; last year his government arrested Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the film Hotel Rwanda, by luring him onto a flight from Dubai to Kigali, where he is now on trial as an alleged terrorist.

Russia has also gotten into the game. The Kremlin’s lethal transnational attacks on high-profile former government officials are well known and include a failed effort to kill former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain with a nerve agent in 2018 and the deadly polonium poisoning of former FSB and KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, also in Britain.

And in recent years agents have targeted independent critics of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov who have fled overseas. In January 2020, the Chechen blogger and regime critic Imran Aliyev was stabbed 135 times in a hotel room in Lille, France. A month later, another outspoken Chechen blogger, Tumso Abdurakhmanov, narrowly survived a hammer attack at his apartment in Sweden; at trial, his assailants confessed to acting on orders of the Chechen government. A third attack took place in Vienna in July of that year, killing the blogger Mamikhan Umarov.

The United States and its close allies have also adopted tactics that may have lowered the bar in terms of crossing borders to neutralize perceived threats to the state. Israel has targeted hostile militants globally and, since 9/11, the United States has mounted aggressive efforts to grab violent extremist plotters and target them with drone strikes. Both Israel and the United States have sought to justify such measures under domestic and international laws involving self-defense and the laws of war, rationales that have been staunchly contested by human rights groups.

For decades, a dissident’s decision to go into exile meant surrendering visibility and influence in return for safety. With the advent of social media and digital communications, that bargain has been upended: Critics can remain vocal and relevant from afar, but their movements can be tracked and traced, and governments are increasingly determined not to allow international borders or norms to stand in the way of silencing or eliminating their antagonists.

Exiles are uniquely situated to tell the stories of repression and survival that governments would rather keep untold, to provide lifelines of solidarity to the persecuted back home, and to envision new futures for beleaguered societies is under threat. For every abduction, attack, and murder, shockwaves reverberate among global exile communities. As with all acts of terrorism, the targets of these attacks are not just those who are apprehended or killed, but others whom regimes aim to intimidate into silent retreat. This includes fellow exiles but also those in country who dare challenge their governments and must reckon with the prospect that once they come into the crosshairs, there may be no escape, even overseas.

Unless it is useful, sovereignty means little to the despot.

Western countries voicing outrage at the seizure of Protasevich should consider not only how to punish Belarus but also how to address the broader trend of rising imperviousness to international borders and norms when it comes to the repression of dissent.

First, they should focus on deterrence and punishment. Governments should punish each instance of cross-border repression through targeted sanctions, diplomatic reprisals, restricting security sector assistance, and other countermeasures. Wherever possible, individuals involved in attacks or other unlawful activities should be brought to justice. If the perpetrators are based in the country where the hit occurred, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. When, as in the Khashoggi case, they reside within the country that ordered the attack, the hurdles to accountability are obvious. Either way, though, it is essential to recognize that these attacks are orchestrated from the highest levels of government.

The U.S. government’s decision to exempt Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from punishment based on the Khashoggi murder sets a troubling precedent that must not mean that those ultimately responsible for cross-border attacks walk free because they are considered untouchable.

Second, Western countries must fortify protections for vulnerable exiles. Working with law enforcement and social services agencies, governments should assess the status of activist local refugees and asylum-seekers from countries known to engage in cross-border abuses to evaluate vulnerabilities and consider ways to provide enhanced safety and protection. This should be done not just within home countries but by diplomats stationed overseas in places with a track record or risk of violations within their territory. If governments recognize that exiled dissidents enjoy close ties to local diplomats, this can offer a measure of protection.

Third, governments should work to strengthen and elaborate norms against cross-border politically motivated reprisals. This could begin with a joint statement or resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council spotlighting the abuses and calling on governments to augment respect for international law. The invocation of U.N. and regional human rights mechanisms can help to raise the political and diplomatic profile and price of these abuses. By demonstrating that the transnational repression of dissidents is not merely a concern of the West, a wider range of governments can be mobilized to protest these attacks and fortify themselves against violations within their borders.

Authoritarian regimes frequently argue that their perpetration of human rights violations is a domestic matter, shielded from external scrutiny or interventions by the strictures of sovereignty. But the rising pattern of assaults that puncture borders and defy norms in order to punish, silence, and bully reveal that, unless it is useful, sovereignty means little to the despot.

Desk Team