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Repression is being exported

28 March 2024

Governments should not be allowed to abuse human rights in other countries, says Lily Sparks


Protesters hold posters of Jamal Khashoggi near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, in October 2020

Protesters hold posters of Jamal Khashoggi near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, in October 2020

FOR activists, journalists, and dissidents fleeing their home countries, safety is increasingly hard to find. They are targeted for their work even when on foreign soil.

This insidious reach of governments to commit abuses beyond their borders has been termed “transnational repression”. It is on the rise, the rights group Freedom House reports; its recent study of the phenomenon concluded that “more governments are committing more acts of transnational repression around the world”.

Human Rights Watch has reported cases of transnational repression for years. The governments of Saudi Arabia, China, Rwanda, and Russia, among others, have long been implicated in harassment, abductions, and killings, and, more recently, in digital abuses, through new technologies.

Some cases are well known: the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, by Saudi agents in Turkey, and the abduction of the Belarusian activist Roman Pratasevich from a Ryanair flight. Among cases in the UK, Iranian British journalists have been threatened, and their relatives in Iran have been harassed and even detained. But many cases go unreported.

Some governments, increasingly concerned about abuses being committed on their own soil, are stepping up to counter the repressive reach of foreign governments.

The Biden administration has helped to create a G7 Rapid Response Mechanism Working Group on transnational repression to co-ordinate government responses. The UK has created a Defending Democracy Taskforce that seeks to combat foreign interference, including such threats. In the European Union, both the Foreign Affairs Council and the European Parliament listed addressing transnational repression as a priority in 2023.

But governments also need to scrutinise the part that they are playing, to make sure that they are not contributing — even inadvertently — to the very acts that they seek to curtail.

AN ALARMING example is the UK government’s proposed deal to transfer asylum-seekers forcibly to Rwanda, whose government has long engaged in acts of transnational repression against perceived dissidents and other nationals living abroad. This is despite the UK Supreme Court’s finding that Rwanda is not a safe country for asylum-seekers (News, 17 November 2023). By undertaking such arrangements with a government that threatens its own dissidents abroad, the UK sends a troubling message that it can ignore such threats in favour of other interests.

The UK has also failed to investigate instances of transnational repression on its soil, thus allowing foreign governments to abuse human rights in the UK with impunity.

In 2000, for example, Princess Shamsa, of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was abducted from Cambridge, after she fled her family estate in Surrey. “He sent four Arab men to catch me, they were carrying guns and threatening me,” she was quoted as saying in an email that she managed to smuggle out. “They drove me to my father’s place in Newmarket, there they gave me two injections and a handful of tablets, the very next morning a helicopter came and flew me to the plane, which took me back to Dubai. I am locked up until today.”

In 2020, the High Court ruled that Shamsa’s father, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, was responsible for her abduction. The case was not properly investigated by the UK authorities at the time. The court found that the Crown Prosecution Service had denied requests by the UK police to interview potential witnesses in Dubai.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office conceded that it has information relating to the investigation, but it has refused to disclose it to the court, on the basis that it could prejudice the UK’s relationship with the UAE. Princess Shamsa has not been seen in public since her abduction.

SIMILARLY, President Biden promised to hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s death accountable, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, whom US intelligence revealed to have approved the murder. But there has apparently been no accountability for Khashoggi’s death, nor for Saudi Arabia’s increasing efforts to target other dissidents beyond its borders.

The UK Minister for Security, Tom Tugendhat, said on 26 February: “We are open to any reports of transnational repression, and we are listening.” That may be the case, but the UK and other governments need to stay alert to their own tolerance of threats from abroad to people in the UK.

They should not turn a blind eye to governments engaging in harassment, abductions, and killings abroad — and they need to work with other like-minded countries to actively oppose such practices.

Reinforcing respect for human rights — which includes promoting the safety and well-being of people seeking refuge, not political expediency — is the best bet for achieving a rules-based international order.

Lily Sparks is an advocacy research associate at Human Rights Watch.


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