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Concerns Over ‘Transnational Repression’ Raised at UN Rights Body

Coordinated Response Needed Against Efforts to Stifle Dissent Across Borders

United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, September 11, 2023.  © 2023 Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Many journalists living in exile are being targeted by their home governments in an attempt to silence them, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression told the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday, voicing concern over the problem of transnational repression

“Targeting journalists on foreign soil violates international law,” Irene Khan said while presenting a report on the topic, “and must be condemned strongly.”

Khan also highlighted the often-inadequate responses of host countries and urged more effective protection and support for affected media members.

As Human Rights Watch documented in a recent global report, transnational repression – when governments reach across their borders to stifle dissent – is experienced not only by journalists, but also human rights defenders, political opponents, and others perceived as a threat. The abusive acts include online harassment, surveillance, enforced disappearances, and physical attacks, sometimes even killings.

These governmental actions beyond borders leave people in exile unable to find genuine safety for themselves and their families. In some host countries, authorities simply fail to ensure adequate protective measures. In other countries, Human Rights Watch found that local authorities actively facilitated the foreign government’s transnational repression of people seeking refuge.

The UN expert’s report provides clear guidance to those seeking to address transnational repression. Khan joins the UN human rights chief and a number of other UN experts – including the special rapporteur on Eritrea – in recent months who have raise the alarm over these pernicious practices.

Responding to the report, dozens of countries from all regions released a joint statement to condemn transnational repression and commit to coordinated action to support those targeted, and hold perpetrators of such abuses accountable.

Condemning transnational repression is a necessary first step, but concrete action is needed. At the national level, governments should adopt measures to protect victims of such abuses, including by granting emergency visas and work permits. At the international level, states and UN actors should coordinate their efforts to respond to transnational repression and protect those at risk.

Transnational repression is a long-overlooked problem that threatens many basic rights. Together, governments should work to ensure the safety of those forced to flee their homelands yet bravely speak out.

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