Using physical attacks, harassment, and digital surveillance, autocrats increasingly try to reach dissidents and activists living beyond their borders. The Biden administration has committed to countering this phenomenon – which academics and Freedom House have called “transnational repression” – as part of its efforts to combat the global expansion of authoritarianism. However, the recent State Department human rights reports present an incomplete picture of this global threat.

In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the Khashoggi Ban, which the administration will use to restrict visas for individuals who engage in “extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.” In the same announcement, Secretary Blinken also directed the State Department to report on the extraterritorial activities of States in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, affirming a practice that began in 2019.

Tracking transnational repression is crucial to stopping it. Freedom House released a special report earlier in the year, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, which documented the scale and scope of the problem. The inclusion by the State Department of sections in some of the latest Country Reports specifically devoted to “politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country” is an important step forward in recognizing this growing global threat to human rights. But gaps in the State Department’s coverage and issues of consistency need to be addressed to make sure the reports document the real extent of the problem.

Tactics of Transnational Repression included in the State Department Reports

The 2020 State Department reports do well in clearly highlighting two main ways that autocratic States try to reach beyond their borders: by manipulating international organizations and by cooperating with each other.

Of the 29 country reports that include the new section in 2020, 13 document incidents connected to the “misuse of international law enforcement,” referring to politically motivated manipulation of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) – commonly known as INTERPOL abuse. INTERPOL abuse happens when Member States use the organization’s mechanisms, which are intended to disseminate information about serious crimes to policing agencies around the world, to target political opponents. It poses a unique threat to democratic countries because it allows for authoritarians to manipulate domestic courts and immigration agencies for their own goals.

According to the State Department’s 2020 reports and confirmed by Freedom House data, Russia, Tajikistan, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, China, and Venezuela routinely abuse the INTERPOL notifications system. These countries take advantage of the organization’s inability to independently verify the underlying accusations forming the basis of Red Notices – a type of digital alert about alleged criminal activity – to have political exiles detained and even deported.

The State Department reports also find that 11 countries exerted bilateral pressure or used interstate cooperation in order to detain and deport individuals. Formal and ad hoc cooperation between North Korea and China, Burundi and Tanzania, and Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan have led to the forced repatriation of asylum seekers. In these cases, the distinction between political exile and refugee is difficult to clearly establish because States criminalize the act of leaving their territory or target those who choose not to return once called home. Remaining outside the country’s borders is interpreted as an act of political defiance.

Although the role of international organizations like INTERPOL and cooperation between States are important avenues for transnational repression, the toolkit of repressive tactics available to autocrats is much larger. China, for example, is cited in the State Department reports as “misusing international law enforcement” but also as harassing Chinese citizens abroad via social media as well as pressuring their relatives who still live in the country. Turkey, in addition to issuing hundreds of Red Notices for political opponents, has also rendered people from European States, refused to renew passports at embassies thereby limiting people’s mobility, and used domestic courts to pressure activists living abroad by seizing their property.

Gaps in the Reports: Missing Tactics, Missing Context, and Missing Cases

Yet, the comprehensiveness with which the State Department covered the scope of repressive tactics employed by China and Turkey is an outlier. Only a handful of other cases included in the reports document an array of tactics, thereby failing to capture the reality of how autocrats harass critics. In our research, Freedom House found that of the 31 States that employ transnational repression, 29 use more than one method – often layering repressive tactics to increase the pressure on an individual.

The State Department reports establish an official record of transnational repression. However, improvements to the reports’ breadth and depth are needed to better inform both government responses and public discourse. In their current state, the reports lack historical context, lessening their value in making and justifying foreign policy decisions.

One case in point is Saudi Arabia. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018, which eventually led to the Khashoggi Ban, stands out as an especially brutal episode of transnational repression. And yet Khashoggi’s fate is not unique. In our research on Saudi Arabia, Freedom House has documented “an increasingly physical, targeted campaign against critics and former insiders” since 2015 that includes the widespread use of spyware, renditions, assault, online harassment, and the targeting of family members.

Instead of cataloguing or even noting a pattern of repression, the relevant section of the State Department’s country report on Saudi Arabia includes a single case of transnational repression: that of Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi insider who fled to Canada and has been the subject of various repressive measures including a Red Notice, digital surveillance, an alleged assassination plot, and family coercion. The lack of broader context about Saudi Arabia’s extraterritorial practices, including the repeated targeting of other dissidents abroad, makes it difficult to put the Khashoggi Ban in appropriate perspective.

Other country reports also stand out because of what is emphasized or overlooked. Sudan, which has a history of extraditing and rendering individuals from other States to face politically motivated charges at home gets a shout-out for good behavior in 2020: “Unlike under the Bashir regime, there were no reported cases of [politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country].” No other country is reviewed positively in this way.

In the 2019 report for Cambodia, the case of Rath Rott Mony, who was extradited from Thailand is documented, while the case of Sam Sokha, also extradited from Thailand despite being a U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR)-recognized refugee, is not. Both Mony and Sokha were accused of offending the leaders of Cambodia: Mony worked on a documentary about sex work in the country, while Sokha threw a shoe at roadside billboard depicting the country’s long-time leader, Hun Sen.

The 2019 report for Egypt does not list any cases of politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country, while the 2020 report only mentions the politically motivated detention of the relatives of an American-Egyptian man. However, drawing on the careful work of organizations like Human Rights Watch, as well as information compiled by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, Freedom House has catalogued 25 incidents of rendition, detention, and deportation of Egyptian nationals, mostly from Malaysia and Kuwait, in 2019.

Filling the Gaps

Transnational repression is hard to track by design. Its tactics manipulate legitimate international mechanisms, rely on the surreptitious deployment of spyware, and take advantage of existing connections to home to pressure targets into silence. The harm caused to individuals and global norms of human rights is real and widespread. In reporting on this phenomenon, the State Department is doing important work under difficult circumstances. Gaps in reporting that are highlighted above may be the result from informational scarcity, in which case the process of data collection can be improved in three ways.

First, training for State Department staff, U.S. diplomats, and personnel stationed around the world on how to recognize transnational repression – like that which they already receive on human trafficking – would help not only to document incidents but to spot threats in real time. Training should include specific information on the different physical and non-physical forms of transnational repression, on which States are known to employ transnational repression most frequently, and, importantly, how certain tactics, like INTERPOL abuse, can coopt legitimate local government agencies or institutions.

However, State Department personnel need not become overnight experts. Instead, they can incorporate the expertise of a growing number of civil society groups, scholars, and non-profit organizations that have investigated transnational repression or aided targeted individuals. Several datasets on transnational repression, including Freedom House’s, but also the University of Exeter’s Central Asian Political Exiles database and the Authoritarian Actions Abroad Database, can provide historical context and illustrate the rage of known tactics. Groups like Fair Trials and The Heritage Foundation have invested time and thought into the problem of INTERPOL abuse, while Citizen Lab has expertly tracked transnational digital repression. Local civil society groups working around the world, especially with diaspora groups, can provide case-specific details to make reports more complete.

Third, the U.S. government can ensure that collection and publication of information on transnational repression continues by making this section of the State Department’s human rights reports a permanent feature. On May 12, the Transnational Repression and Accountability (TRAP) Act was reintroduced to Congress by members of the Helsinki Commission. The TRAP Act takes aim at INTERPOL abuse by affirming principles of due process that limit the reach of Red Notices within the U.S. judicial and immigration system, supporting greater efforts at transparency within INTERPOL, and requiring the Attorney General to report on the misuse of INTERPOL by Member States. It also mandates the inclusion of a section on transnational repression in all future reports. As the recent shocking incident of transnational repression involving Belarus vividly demonstrates, this problem is here to stay. Passage of the TRAP Act would make certain that a public record of this global threat to human rights continues to be made annually so that efforts to fight transnational repression have consistent support from the State Department.

Image: Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up paper planes during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021, demanding freedom for Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich a day after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying the dissident journalist was diverted while in Belarusian airspace (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)