Many struggles for justice, peace, or well-being incur the pushback of the state. When the state is authoritarian and unconstrained (or unconcerned) by the rule of law, ‘pushback’ can be severe and even lethal. Not surprisingly, many dissidents or activists seek safety in exile. It was assumed that, once abroad, activists would be able to live safely. However, this is not the case.
Technology now enables repressive regimes to follow exiles across frontiers, causing (or threatening to cause) harm to them or their loved ones. The very nature of open societies makes this possible. Repressive regimes exploit liberal values and democratic systems to extend their tentacles through agents or instruments to repress persons beyond their frontiers. Sometimes the repression is physical or material, with attacks on personal integrity, property or other interests. Sometimes, it is intangible as repressive regimes mobilize social media to attack and destroy, reputationally or financially, their targets.
Transnational repression has been defined as “attempts by regimes to punish, deter, undermine, and silence activism in the diaspora.” As Freedom House chillingly sets out in its 2021 and 2022 reports, transnational repression is increasing as foreign authoritarian governments harass, intimidate and otherwise seek to suppress their opponents – quelling or even eliminating them. Russian use of Novichok to poison exiled dissidents has become notorious. However, foreign assassinations of expatriates have long occurred. In the 1980s, Baghdad systematically surveyed and “supervised” Iraqi students in the UK, including by intelligence agents within overseas student associations. But technological developments have multiplied the kinds and reach of such extra-territorial repression.
Recent reports of transnational repression in Canada have stunned everyone except the victims. Last year, three persons were reportedly under surveillance by the Iranian government. In September 2022, a report by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group based in Spain, revealed that the Chinese Government is operating in Toronto three ‘overseas police service stations’ targeting Chinese political dissidents; two more (one in Vancouver) have since been identified, and Canada has formally objected to China. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating “possible foreign actor interference”. These cases follow the reported attempted assassination of Saudi dissident Saad Aljabri in Canada in 2018.
Beyond Canada, other democracies are also experiencing this issue. In Dublin, for example, one of the Chinese overseas ‘police service stations’ was ordered to suspend its operations by the Irish Government (while China claimed that the station merely provided driving licence renewal services to Chinese citizens living there). Beijing has similarly monitored and harassed people in The Netherlands and other European states. According to activists, those targeted feel forced to collaborate out of fear of reprisals against their families back in China. But collaboration and sharing national security information with foreign authorities could amount to aiding and abetting criminal acts against Canadian citizens, with possibly severe consequences for individuals in Canada.
As a matter of international law, a state’s legitimate authority applies to its territory and its nationals, certainly within its territory and for limited matters beyond (for example, taxation or particular conduct abroad [like sexual exploitation of children]). A state may not extend its authority into the territory of another state or over persons who are not its nationals and not within its territory. A state may not act within the territory of another state against nationals of that state or others; that would breach the foundational norm of sovereign independence and territorial integrity. Activists-in-Exile (AiEs) pose some complication; a former national – expatriated – is, in principle, no longer subject to the authority of the state of origin. However, some states – especially repressive ones – prohibit renunciation of nationality (contrary to Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) or deny dual nationality. But transnational repression goes far beyond permissible measures of taxation and increasingly affects foreign nationals (whether expatriated, their descendants or others) on foreign soil.
Fundamental questions about sovereignty, territorial integrity, and peaceful (if not exactly friendly) relations among states are raised by transnational repression. First and essential, there is the matter of interference by foreign states or their agents within the sovereign jurisdiction and domestic affairs of the state of the person repressed. Second, the security of those targeted may be compromised or in doubt. Third, the territorial integrity of the state of those repressed appears breached. And fourth, the whole construct of the international rules-based order appears challenged. Further, for open societies and democracies like Canada, transnational repression poses a basic challenge to the capacity to deliver timely and effective protection for persons within its jurisdiction and, generally, to secure the state against malign foreign forces and influence.
Transnational repression is not easy to control because the interfering foreign state often conducts its activities covertly. Nonetheless, host states must act to protect everyone, including foreign nationals who are or may be political dissidents or human rights activists in their countries of origin. In doing so, host states should avoid extraordinary measures negatively affecting human rights and freedoms. Nuanced and tailored policy and laws are required to control effectively transnational repression in Canada. Currently, the applicable law is antiquated (dating from before the Internet) and needs updating. Specifically, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act addresses “threats to the security of Canada”, which the Act defines as “activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interest of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person.” However, the Act neither provides a clear definition of “transnational repression” nor includes measures to prevent and penalize it.
In devising fit-for-purpose policy and law, full and effective consultation should be had with a range of AiEs who are acutely aware of the problem, its manifestations, and implications. Their experiences and views should be considered, with input from those under threat who are most likely to possess intimate knowledge and understanding of the tools and methods that foreign actors use to carry out and sustain their repressive activities within Canada. Thereby, too, will it be more likely that better policies, laws, programmes and practices may emerge which will protect everyone in Canada irrespective of their origins, views, or peaceful activities. The emergence of transnational repression makes this urgent.