Bipartisan, comprehensive legislation represents a bold new frontier in the fight against transnational repression
Thursday, March 16, 2023
Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley joined forces with U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Bill Hagerty (R-TN)—members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—to introduce the Transnational Repression Policy Act. This bipartisan, comprehensive legislation would establish a new U.S. policy to hold foreign governments and individuals accountable when they stalk, intimidate, or assault people across borders, including in the United States. The bill would also help elevate countering transnational repression as a key foreign policy priority of the United States and prioritize diplomacy that combats transnational repression as part of a broader strategy to advance democratic principles and respect for human rights, domestically and internationally.
High profile examples of transnational repression include the hijacking and diversion of a plane by the Belarusian government to arrest an opposition activist and journalist, along with his partner; the poisoning of several former Russian intelligence officers residing in England; and Iranian intelligence agents foiled plot to abduct a Brooklyn-based Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist.
“It’s terrible when authoritarian regimes oppress their people at home, but it’s an unacceptable act of aggression to target dissidents in other countries,” said Senator Merkley. “Journalists, writers, activists, and everyday people who have spoken truth to power in their country are too often intimidated and blackmailed while living abroad. The U.S. must take a stand and pursue a whole-of-government approach to address the rising tide of transnational repression whenever and wherever it occurs. This bill is a critical step in holding authoritarian governments accountable and providing safe haven to those fleeing repressive states.”
“While Uyghurs in Xinjiang continue to face the Chinese Communist Party’s genocidal campaign, exiles from the Uyghur, Tibetan, Falun Gong, Christian and Hong Kong communities, who have come to our nation for protection, are now targets of transnational repression,” said Senator Rubio. “The U.S. must devise a strategy to counter these criminal tactics and ensure that the CCP cannot harass or attack individuals on American soil.”
“It is past time for the United States to develop a comprehensive strategy to identify the perpetrators on trans-national repression and to deter them,” said Senator Cardin. “Our bill, when it becomes law, would move us decisively in the right direction.”
“As Communist China, Russia, Iran and other adversaries engage in transnational repression, the United States must make clear that it will never tolerate this malign extraterritorial behavior, especially on American soil,” said Senator Hagerty. “I’m pleased to support this bipartisan legislation to force transparency and accountability when malign actors violate our sovereignty and laws to harass and assault dissidents in the United States and around the world.”
Transnational repression is when a foreign government crosses national borders to intimidate, harass, or harm members of diaspora and exile communities in order to prevent their exercise of internationally-recognized human rights. It can take both physical and virtual forms, from physical assaults and unlawful renditions and detentions to targeted online surveillance and public slander and libel.
Authoritarian governments rely on transnational repression to strengthen their control over emigrant and diaspora communities, especially as domestic crackdowns on democracy and human rights pushes dissidents abroad. These actions prevent democratic countries from serving as a physical haven for those fleeing repression.
In their Freedom in the World 2023 report, human rights group Freedom House stated clearly that “the overall decline in global freedom over the last two decades has created a more hostile environment for individual countries’ democratization efforts and provided transnational support for illiberal leaders.” The report notes that authoritarian governments are increasing their attacks on democracy and have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties. The report warns that: “consolidating and protecting nascent democratic institutions has become more difficult than in the heyday of democratization following the end of the Cold War.”
“The Transnational Repression Policy Act proposes a number of essential policy reforms to address transnational repression,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, President of Freedom House. “When authoritarian leaders reach across borders to silence their critics, they threaten not only the safety of the targeted individuals, but also the sovereignty and security of democratic governments around the world and human rights more broadly. We are grateful to the Senators for their leadership on this issue and look forward to seeing this important bill move swiftly into law.”
The most frequent perpetrator of transnational repression is the People’s Republic of China, which targets Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, Tibetans, dissidents, and others. Freedom House characterizes China’s campaign of transnational repression as “the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive . . . in the world.” The long arm of the Chinese state has reached Chinese dissidents in the U.S. as well. For example, in March 2022, the Department of Justice charged a Ministry of State Security employee with conspiracy for hiring a private investigator to harass and physically assault a pro-democracy Chinese activist who was running for U.S. Congress in Long Island. Intimidation and harassment tactics were used to prevent him from carrying out his campaign. In another recent Department of Justice case, a Massachusetts music student, and citizen of the People’s Republic of China, was indicted on connections to stalking and threatening an individual posting fliers in support of democracy in China.
Russia is another flagrant perpetrator of transnational repression, having used it as a tool in the lead up to the unprovoked war against Ukraine. In April 2020, Just Security reported Ukrainian authorities arrested a major general in the Security Service of Ukraine on suspicion that he was working with the Russian intelligence services on an assassination plot against a pro-Ukrainian Chechen fighter. In 2018, Ukrainian authorities warned an exiled Russian journalist of a Russian plan to murder him. Such plots and actions will only be easier to execute in the midst of conflict and occupation.
In order to keep authoritarian governments in check and prevent their “long arm” from impeding on human rights abroad, this bill would:
- Include a transnational repression-specific section within the State Department’s Annual Human Rights Report.
- Require the Secretary of State along with other relevant heads of Federal departments and agencies to present a report to Congress on a U.S. strategy to address transnational repression and enhance international awareness of it.
- Require the Departments of State and Justice to work with civil society and the private sector on training for U.S. diplomatic personnel and domestic federal employees, respectively, on identifying and understanding transnational repression.
- Authorize funding for each Fiscal Year from 2024 to 2027 to develop curriculum for diplomatic personnel and domestic federal employees, respectively.
- Instruct the intelligence community to identify perpetrators of transnational repression and their tools, and share relevant information with like-minded partners.
- Establish a dedicated tip line for transnational repression reporting with the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, which would also do outreach to communities at risk.
- Require the President submit a list to Congress of foreign individuals who should have sanctions imposed on them because they, knowingly and unknowingly, directly engaged in transnational repression.
Bill text can be found here.
Bill summary can be found here.