[Interview] Dr. Dana Moss calls on the UN to appoint a special rapporteur on transnational repression

Dr. Dana Moss

Dr. Dana Moss, who developed the term ’’transnational repression,” in an interview with the Stockholm Center for Freedom called on the United Nations to appoint a special rapporteur to study the practice.

“I would like to see the United Nations, the EU human rights arms, bringing more attention to this issue. Perhaps the UN could appoint a special rapporteur to study the issue,” she said.

As part of SCF ‘s “Freedom Talks” interview series, our communications director, İrem Çörekçi, spoke with Dr. Moss about transnational repression and conflict transmission and their impact on critics in exile.

Dr. Moss is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. Her research is focused on how authoritarian forces repress their critics and how collective actors resist this repression in a globalized world. To date, Dr. Moss’s work has grown out of fieldwork conducted across the Middle East region and among diasporas in the US and the United Kingdom. Her work has been published in journals such as the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, Social Problems, Mobilization: An International Journal and Political Geography. Dr. Moss recently published a book titled ”The Arab Spring Abroad: Diaspora Activism against Authoritarian Regimes.”

For the general audience, how would you define transnational repression and conflict transmission?

Transnational repression is a term that I developed to refer specifically to the practice of authoritarian regimes and the ways that they engage in particular direct and indirect practices in order to repress and silence and neutralize criticism abroad. They may do so through harder repressive tactics such as kidnapping, assassinations, renditions and that sort of hard violence.

They also do so indirectly by surveillance, issuing threats and monitoring diaspora communities in order to let people know that they’re being watched and that they can suffer repercussions if they speak out or protest against regimes from abroad.

Conflict transmission is a term that I developed to refer to the ways in which people’s home country conflicts — these could be what Westerners might call sectarian conflicts, identity-based conflicts, regional conflicts, insurgencies — the ways that these kinds of tensions between co-nationals translate and travel abroad through people’s ties.

It’s not to say that conflicts, for example, against the Turkish state and the PKK, are replicated abroad exactly in the same form. But the kinds of tensions and disagreements, mistrust and fear that people have in the home country because of political conflicts that they’re involved, these impact the diaspora because the diaspora retains these ties to the home country both through their identities and their families. This can really impact the potential of diaspora communities to work together to fulfil their civil rights and their political liberties, and it can also impact the other mobilization potential. Regimes are very clever in the ways that they can exploit this. So they can also turn certain parts of the diaspora against itself, against one another, sort of co-opting or recruiting them to participate in transnational repression, which is a huge issue.

Why do regimes engage in transnational repression?

I think there are a few reasons. Transnational repression isn’t necessarily new. Mussolini was famous for trying to control and repress dissent in the diaspora, anti-fascist activity in the diaspora. This probably goes back well before that.

The reason that it appears to be increasing and appears to be an increasingly problematic practice and a pervasive one is for a few reasons. I think one is that authoritarian regimes, even though oftentimes they act in ways, they seem very brazen and they go out of their way to perform power and posture themselves vis-a-vis other states and other governments, they’re still looking for legitimacy and acceptance in the international community. And they’re very worried about their reputations and about troublemakers who might be spreading counter-propaganda abroad.

Governments have also learned that diasporas can be powerful. If we think about all of the different nationalist figures, from Sun Yat-sen in China to Vladimir Lenin to Ruhollah Khomeini, these are very prominent exiles who ended up creating revolutions at home and creating regime change at home. Regimes are afraid of those people. There’s also an ideological impetus to try to control people and populations, communities that regimes consider to be their subjects. In other words, diasporas are perceived by regime leaders as owing regimes their loyalty just as they would with subjects at home.

Increased connectivity between people makes certain forms of transnational repression easier for regimes. We all carry around little computers in our pocket called smartphones, and they make it easier for regimes to surveil their critics, monitor and track them. This is infamously how Jamal Khashoggi and how some of his activism was uncovered by the regime and later why he was assassinated in Istanbul. I think a lot of activists abroad are increasingly exposed through their social media, phones and their networks to regimes which have access to them in through this technology.

What are the mechanisms of transnational repression that silence the voice of diaspora?

We see a whole repertoire of different tactics that regimes use to target their critics abroad. These include surveillance and monitoring attempts to control diaspora organizations and groups by basically agents of the regimes. A lot of times these are folks who have diplomatic protections through consulates and embassies.

A lot of times regimes will attempt to exercise, what my colleague would call “soft power” over the diaspora. For example, establish organizations where students are required or encouraged to join and then their activities, their loyalties are monitored. We see a lot of surveillance. For example, when students are given a state-sponsored scholarship to go study abroad, part of that deal may be that they have to report on the activities of their fellow students, of people they might see in their religious institutions.

People may be very much coerced to participate in this kind of surveillance because they don’t know who might be reporting on them. It’s a very totalitarian, almost ideal type way, of trying to control your population so as turn people against each other, to turn everyone into the agent of the state.

Really important research by Dr. Edward Lemon and also other researchers within the Freedom House special projects group are showing that actual violence against diaspora members is on the upswing. We see regimes issuing Red Notices or diffusions against their critics in order to try to recruit host countries to extradite them, incarcerate them.

I think it’s very scary that a lot of people require personal protection when they live abroad in exile because they have reasons to be afraid and host countries have received intelligence that people are on wanted lists, death lists. We’ve also seen very egregious acts of violence such with the Saudi regime sending basically a hit squad to places like Turkey and Canada to try to actually eliminate their critics and high-profile dissidents or regime defectors.

We see that basically any tactic that regimes will use to repress people at home, they attempt to do to their diaspora. They have more constraints in terms of repressing people abroad because they have to balance their agenda of repression with potential blowback from the states and the governments where they might be committing transnational repression. They want to try to do it under the radar so that they don’t get in trouble or have some sort of diplomatic issue. I think host countries are reacting to this sometimes very productively, but we’re very much on the back foot, so the protections are sort of hit or miss for these communities. It can be very scary for people to even talk to each other if they don’t trust each other and they don’t know if they’re going to be in danger in the future.

What is the impact of transnational repression on critics who choose to continue to raise their voices in exile, even though they know that this can be very dangerous for them, for their families back home, but also families that they’re living with in exile?

One of the most important tactics of transnational repression is what I call “proxy punishment,” or “coercion by proxy.” Sometimes when regimes can’t reach critics abroad, they do something terrible to their families, essentially to get them to be quiet, to coerce them or to punish them into silence.

When I was speaking with members of the Libyan and Syrian diaspora who knew very well about the potential problems that they might incur from transnational repression but were still continuing to be active, they told me that other members of the diaspora were very cautious around them or afraid to associate with them. This can be very isolating for activists in the community, and that, I found, makes it hard for them to mobilize diasporas for democracy for human rights back in the home country because people see that their relationships with activists could be very incriminating for them. I think that even though a lot of exiles are still working day in, day out, to raise awareness about human rights atrocities at home to support activists who are still in the home country, to deal with humanitarian crises, to commemorate massacres and other atrocities, like the Armenian diaspora in terms of keeping this struggle alive, I think within communities that are still impacted by transnational repression, those activists are oftentimes very lonely, and they don’t have the kind of social or financial support that they need.

I think it’s also really easy for regimes to target high profile activists as like being stooges or dupes of imperialist foreign American policy or Western policy. It’s easy for regimes to really go after isolated voices and try to defame them, slander them and ruin their reputations.

A lot of diasporas lack viable lobbies or organizations because they can’t get the community support they need to form member-based organizations to contest these regimes from the diaspora. If the burden falls on a few isolated exiles, it’s a lot harder for them to sustain that kind of work. It’s lonely and they can be more easily maligned or slandered that way.

What are the reasons why conflicts in the home country divide the diaspora and even create other conflicts within the diaspora?

Conflict transmission is very dynamic. It very much depends on what is going on at home. I think when things really come to a head in the home country, sometimes people can’t socialize abroad because they are consumed with concern and worry and very strong opinions about what’s going on at home. They can’t necessarily relate to other people in the diaspora because they don’t agree fundamentally about what’s happening and what the solution should be, or they don’t trust each other due to historical differences, familial differences. So the conflict transmission can be very powerful in terms of dividing people and keeping people mistrustful and also factionalizing the diaspora.

When those issues come to a head and people start to divide again at home, I think it really has a similar impact in the diaspora because, and we’ve seen this empirically because people are connected to the issues that are impacting their home country, particularly when they have family there, that their social relationships and the diaspora are also impacted by those kinds of conflicts.

I think people also, through conflict transmission, disagree about who has the right to represent the home country abroad. Who gets to represent the diaspora? I think there’s a sense of  unfairness, competition or just concern that only certain voices are being represented. People get really angry when they feel that certain leaders in the diaspora are overstepping or speaking for them.

How does Turkey’s transnational repression relate to the larger global authoritarianism? Is there anything that makes Turkey’s current method of transnational repression unique?

I think Turkey is sort of the example par excellence of what happens when you have a threatened regime at home that is trying to consolidate its role, reinforce its power, is becoming increasingly authoritarian. We see that the effect of that really leads to an increase in transnational repression abroad, partly because repression at home forces a lot of people into exile, forces a lot of people to flee. And then now the Erdoğan regime is very concerned about controlling and suppressing dissent abroad, now that its critics are relatively safe abroad, even though not everybody is. I think it speaks again when we think about authoritarianism not just as contained within the boundaries of the nation state. Authoritarianism is a governing practice.

That is not limited to borders, and it can be enabled by technology, by connectivity, by whether you have regime outposts in the form of consulates, whether you have regime religious institutions, such as those sponsored by the Diyanet. The regime is really trying to extend its governmentality and its control. This is a kind of governmental style that is extending across borders. It seems that with the rise of global authoritarianism and the democracy recession that we’re experiencing on a global level, it’s hugely problematic because now we see states are cooperating with each other to not only help fuel transnational repression for themselves, but to help their partners and their allies engage in transnational repression in their territory.

A big example of this is Turkey saying basically Saudi Arabia can investigate Jamal Khashoggi’s death. That is a kind of diplomatic and economic deal that they made. In that way, Turkey is giving Saudi Arabia a green light to go ahead with other kinds of acts, like the Khashoggi assassination, by not continuing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. That’s another way in which authoritarianism contributes to this.

Authoritarian regimes are investing a huge amount of resources in the technology to not only surveil their citizens, but people abroad, the people that they’re connected to. The fruits of globalization make it so cool that you and I can talk from Sweden to US, so, too, can these technologies be very readily harnessed by states who have a lot more resources than activists do to infiltrate, develop, use and purchase technologies to help them do this.

Turkey is very much a part of this trend. We see it with Saudi Arabia, Syria, China, Rwanda, Eritrea. They’re not alone, and we’ve seen this in the past. However, Turkey is a major geopolitical player in the world. It is a leader in Middle East politics, for sure, if not on a global stage. What Turkey does have is a huge influence not only on its population but also other populations. We’ve seen this in terms of its influence in Syria and its participation in the war there and in the humanitarian issues as well, but definitely in the war.

Freedom House has recently documented in terms of the harsher repressive tactics that are more easily counted such as murder, kidnapping, etc., that Turkey is in the top five global perpetrators of transnational repression. I do think because Turkey has such a huge diaspora, particularly across Europe, the Erdoğan regime has made governments in places like, Germany, France, Austria and Sweden very nervous about stirring up ultranationalist mobilization for Turkey, about the repression of citizens and residents who have the legal right to protest and have the freedom of speech.

One thing that Edward Lemon and other scholars have talked about is the fact that when we see the Turkish regime engage in a lot of transnational repression, host countries are rightfully trying to counter the regime’s influence on the diaspora. Unfortunately, a side effect of this is that it can make ordinary people very nervous about accepting refugees and other immigrants from Turkey because they worry that this is creating more problems. However, it’s precisely of course those immigrants and refugees that need to be accepted, protected and welcomed. There’s also racism on top of that, even though that’s totally socially constructed.

Unfortunately, I think regimes, by trying to control the diaspora, are creating divisions and exacerbating that conflict transmission we talked about, creating mistrust, making host country governments feel that their security is threatened, and in turn it can create a backlash against the immigrants themselves, in other words, blaming the victims. I think that this can be a really important and damaging side effect of transnational repression.

Usually perpetrators of transnational repression do not openly acknowledge their actions. But in the case of Turkey, Erdoğan loves to brag about such cases. Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay recently said in a speech in parliament that more than 100 people have been forcibly returned to Turkey by the country’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) thanks to “intelligence diplomacy.” What are the implications of this in terms of international law and diplomacy?

We’ve seen this kind of bragging in other cases as well. Gaddafi was famous for talking about the people he was murdering abroad. So too have Egyptian authorities under the Sisi regime been bragging about this, so part of it is the regime communicating to its public, to its supporters, that it’s in control, and part of it is communicating to people abroad.

Vice President Fuat Oktay and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

I think that if host countries can take this seriously, it can be used as leverage to try to combat, to say, “We know that they’re doing this, so we can now take measures to punish them diplomatically, maybe with sanctions, to increase our protections and our communications with diaspora activists.”

It’s not all bad news, but it’s very worrying when regimes feel empowered to do that kind of public bragging because that means that there aren’t enough reasons for them to be more cautious. And then it really falls on host country governments to try to say, “That’s not okay.” It’s a very disturbing trend.

Again, a global campaign against foreign enemies or an international campaign against foreign enemies is a very easy way for a regime to score points with its supporters. It’s a very easy way for regimes to say, “There are all of these foreigners conspiring against us,” and blaming a country’s problems on foreign conspiracies, CIA stooges, imperialists, etc. It’s easier for them to direct people’s animosity and ire and frustrations against those so-called elements than it is to be accountable for their own policies and their own governance. I think it’s also a very cheap trick.

Does the international community have enough counter-mechanisms against states’ attempts at transnational repression?

I think we’re starting to get there, but we’re very much on the back foot. I would like to see the United Nations, the EU human rights arms, bringing more attention to this issue. Perhaps the UN could appoint a special rapporteur to study the issue. I appreciate the fact that, for example, the State Department is starting to include data on transnational repression in its human rights reports, which other countries pay attention to and also is used in terms of figuring out what kind of deals should be made given the human rights violations. I think that there is a huge opportunity for states with the common interest of protecting their own sovereignty to use this as a reason for people on all different sides of political divisions to come together to say, “It’s not okay for Turkey, for Saudi Arabia, for Syria, etc., to come into our territory and punish people who are engaged in either just living their lives, studying, paying taxes, working, or just trying to continue their peaceful activism.”

I think that there is more attention, but we need more international coordination. There needs to be more accountability and oversight within the Interpol organization, for example, to prevent regimes from abusing it because even if Interpol very innocently passes on Red Notices or diffusions from Turkey to the United States or from Saudi Arabia to England, wherever, those institutions sometimes treat that information as warranting a rendition, warranting an arrest just on the sole basis of a Red Notice even if it’s completely bogus.

I think there needs to be a lot of more coordination and awareness of this issue at all levels of government. We also know that in places like the United States, there is a shortage of people who work in the civic sector who can help police, help immigration enforcement, help people understand what these communities, what diasporas are going through, the kinds of threats that they might face.

The more that host countries are aware of this problem, the more they can deal with it. However, the response is very ad hoc right now. I’d like to see it at all levels, from local law enforcement all the way up to the United Nations. I think that transnational repression needs more awareness, and there is more we can do.

One thing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has done in the United States is set up a tip line, a phone number that people can call to report incidents of this, and this is huge. This is something I’d like to see all countries do. I’d like them to be able to do it multilingually so that people who don’t speak the language of the country have the opportunity to at least report or to be counted in the kinds of data collection efforts that are getting ramped up now to figure out what the scope of the problem is, because there might not be anything that the police or anybody else can do about threats issued, anonymous threats issued over e-mail or over Facebook, but to at least know that it’s happening is an important part of combating the problem. We want diaspora communities to be supported and to feel supported, to feel like they have allies in their host countries at the civic society level and among law enforcement. It’s very important. There’s just no way that we can protect them without this cooperation.

We are seeing an international cross-country interest in this issue. That’s something that researchers, human rights activists, think tanks, diaspora activists themselves can capitalize on to say, “Okay, thank you for paying attention to this issue. Now let’s coordinate a response.”

I am pleased with what I’ve been seeing with the efforts, but of course we’re always five steps behind where other regimes are in terms of how savvy they are and in getting away with it.

What would you recommend to rights groups, activists and organizations that campaign against transnational repression? Or at least is it somehow possible to eliminate the effects of transnational repression?

My colleagues and I just did a big study on proxy punishment. The threats that people face against their families for the activism that they commit abroad, and one thing we found is that institutions and organizations are absolutely critical in helping people to combat the effects of repression, which are oftentimes very individualized and very personal. For example a person may come to work every day having gotten threats, death threats, rape threats, having their families incarcerated, having their families threatened. When employers, organizations, advocacy organizations are aware of this problem, even if they can’t stop it from happening, they can offer absolutely essential social support, emotional support and psychological support.

I think when people feel that they have to deal with the effects or the threats of transnational repression by themselves, it can be very effective in forcing them into silence or into self-censoring their activities. This is what our data show. But when they have social support, when they know that they are going through this together, when there are more powerful organizations and advocates who can speak out against this practice on their behalf, and we saw this with the BBC saying to Iran, “Stop threatening our Persian journalists, this isn’t okay,” I think that that can go a long way in helping people to continue their work and their activism. I think the more connections and the more support that well-resourced organizations could lend by reaching out to diaspora communities, by educating themselves on this problem, or inviting researchers to educate them on this problem like myself and my colleagues, we can go a long way.

What I found so striking about interviewing activists and ordinary diaspora members about this is people with ties to authoritarian regimes and totalitarian-like regimes, like the cult of personality-type regimes we see with Assad, Erdoğan, Putin, Gaddafi and others, is that most people in the diaspora know that this can be a problem. It might be a problem for them, it might be a problem for their neighbor, but they know that it exists. But it’s almost like for so many years, among a lot of these communities I talked to, it was like an open fact, but virtually unknown to people outside of the community.

I went to a protest with Syrians early on in the days of the 2011 uprising, and I was so confused as a white American woman, like, why are people afraid? They’re not sure who I am, they don’t want their pictures taken. Here we are out in public protesting under the California sun, and they’re still afraid of a regime that’s like 6,000 miles away. At first I didn’t understand that, and I think most people, too, it wouldn’t necessarily occur to them, but it’s very clear. Of course these connections, these ties make people vulnerable even if they are living thousands of miles away and day-to-day they feel relatively safe.

The more awareness we can create is helpful, the more social support to say “I recognize what you’re going through and I’m here to support you, even if I can’t fix the problem completely” is really important. Then we can start to come together working with policymakers. There are many in the United States, Europe and across the world who are very concerned about this issue, even if they don’t care about human rights, even if they only come to the issue treating this as a security problem. There is still common ground we can find to say this practice really needs to be treated seriously.

Also we really need to demonstrate, as representatives of democracy, however fragile and flawed it may be, that we take this seriously, that people in our territory will be protected and that there will be real ramifications should regimes go to these lengths, which they are, to keep their diaspora in check. I think that even what we might consider relatively small showings of support, solidarity, coordination, working together, policy change, can have a really big impact. I’m delighted to see what we’ve done as a global community so far, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.

Thank you so much for this talk, Dana. It was great to hear your comments on this very important issue. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think I’ll just say, if in case I didn’t emphasize this well enough, is that, really, when we are thinking about tackling and proactively implementing countermeasures to transnational repression, it is so important for outsiders like myself, or outsiders like members of the US Congress, whoever it is, to work very closely with diaspora activists and all their diversity. To speak to women, to speak to youth, to speak to older generations, to speak to newer generations, to really incorporate them into the process of protection. I think we can only know the full extent of transnational repression through the bravery and the testimony of the people who are impacted directly by it. I think they’re going to be the experts in letting us know on the outside what they need in terms of protection.

As the Stockholm Center for Freedom has been doing, as Freedom House and other organizations have been doing, we need to put their

voices front and center in terms of not only raising awareness but also creating solutions for this issue.


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