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© 2024 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

This questions-and-answers document outlines key questions on the global trend of transnational repression. 

  1. What is transnational repression?
  2. What tactics are used?
  3. Is transnational repression a new phenomenon?  
  4. Where is transnational repression happening? 
  5. Do only “repressive” states commit transnational repression?
  6. Are steps being taken to recognize and address transnational repression? 
  7. What should be done? 

What is transnational repression?

The term “transnational repression” is increasingly used to refer to state actors reaching beyond their borders to suppress or stifle dissent by targeting human rights defenders, journalists, government critics and opposition activists, academics and others, in violation of their human rights. Particularly vulnerable are nationals or former nationals, members of diaspora communities and those living in exile. Many are asylum seekers or refugees in their place of exile, while others may be at risk of extradition or forced return. Back home, a person’s family members and friends may also be targeted, by way of retribution and with the aim of silencing a relative in exile or forcing their return.

Transnational repression can have far-reaching consequences, including a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression and association. While there is no formal legal definition, the framing of transnational repression, which encompasses a wide range of rights abuses, allows us to better understand it and propose victim-centered responses.

What tactics are used?

Documented tactics of transnational repression include killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, unlawful removals, online harassment, the use of digital surveillance including spyware, targeting of relatives, and the abuse of consular services.  Interpol’s Red Notice system has also been used as a tool of transnational repression, to facilitate unlawful extraditions. Interpol has made advances in improving its vetting systems, yet governments continue to abuse the Red Notice system by publishing unlawful notices seeking citizens who have fled abroad on spurious charges. This leaves targets vulnerable to arrest and return to their country of origin to be mistreated, even after they have fled to seek safety abroad.

Is transnational repression a new phenomenon?

No, the practice of governments violating human rights beyond their borders is not new. Civil society organizations have been documenting such abuses for decades. What is new, however, is the growing recognition of transnational repression as more than a collection of grave incidents, but also as an increasing phenomenon of global concern, requiring global responses. What is also new is the increasing access to and use of sophisticated technology to harass, threaten, surveil and track people no matter where they are. This makes the reach of transnational repression even more pervasive. 

Where is transnational repression happening? 

Transnational repression is a global phenomenon. Cases have been documented in countries and regions around the world. The use of technology such as spyware increases the reach of transnational repression, essentially turning an infected device, such as a mobile phone, into a portable surveillance tool, allowing targeted individuals to be spied on and tracked around the world. 

Do only “repressive” states commit transnational repression?

While many authoritarian states resort to repressive tactics beyond their own borders, any government that seeks to silence dissent by targeting critics abroad is committing transnational repression. Democratic governments have also contributed to cases of transnational repression, for example through the provision of spyware, collaborating with repressive governments to deny visas or facilitate returns, or relying upon flawed Interpol Red Notices that expose targeted individuals to risk.

Are steps being taken to recognize and address transnational repression? 

Increasingly, human rights organizations, UN experts and states are documenting and taking steps to address transnational repression.

For example, Freedom House has published several reports on transnational repression and maintains an online resource documenting incidents globally. Human Rights Watch has published reports, including one outlining cases of transnational repression globally and another focusing on Southeast Asia. Amnesty International has published a report on transnational repression in Europe and North America. Many other nongovernmental organizations are increasingly producing research and reports on the issue. 

The UN High Commissioner recently urged states to have "zero tolerance" for transnational repression. In her report on journalists in exile, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression dedicated a chapter to transnational repression, as did the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea. Recently, a group of 5 UN experts used the term transnational repression in a joint statement condemning attacks on Iranian journalists abroad. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights used the term in a June 2024 statement.

Certain governments are increasingly aware of the harms posed by transnational repression. Some are passing legislation to address the problem, while others are signing joint statements or raising transnational repression in international forums. However, government responses are often piecemeal, and a more cohesive and coordinated approach is needed. 

What should be done? 

Governments should speak out and condemn all cases of transnational repression, including by their friends and allies. They should take tangible steps to address transnational repression, including by adopting rights-respecting legal frameworks and policies to address it. Governments should put victims at the forefront of their response to these forms of repression. They should be particularly mindful of the risks and fears experienced by refugee and asylum communities. They should investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Interpol should continue to improve vetting process by subjecting governments with a poor human rights record to more scrutiny when they submit Red Notices. Interpol should be transparent on which governments are continually abusing the Red Notice system, and limit their access to the database.  

At the international level, more can be done to integrate transnational repression within existing human rights reporting, and to mandate dedicated reporting on cases of transnational repression, trends, and steps needed to address it.

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