“Transnational repression” is the emerging term for an insidious and growing form of global religious, political and ethnic persecution that has U.S., European and other governments reeling.
The expression refers to the actions of foreign countries to intimidate, kidnap and sometimes kill their religious minority citizens living abroad, including in the United States, panelists explained during a May 10 virtual hearing convened by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“The reality is that we are very behind the curve in addressing this threat to our sovereignty as democratic countries,” said Julie Millsap, government relations manager at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an international group that supports the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority oppressed by China.
“We need to recognize that intent has not yet produced many results in terms of protection for most of the innocent people who are suffering here on our soil in the United States and around the world.”
Millsap and other experts provided graphic testimony about the emotional and physical violence inflicted by China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and numerous other countries through transnational repression. A State Department official described federal responses, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., urged Congress to take decisive action. Merkley is co-chair of the Congressional Commission on China and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
“Transnational repression is a growing threat to the rights and freedoms of people all across the globe, including freedom of belief and worship, and it has to be a top priority,” Merkley said in a pre-recorded video shared during the hearing. “We see authoritarian governments reaching beyond their borders to silence the voices of dissident diaspora and religious minorities.”
The Oregon Democrat cited cases of Uyghur and Tibetan natives living in the United States who have been targeted by Chinese operatives online and in person, including with threats against their loved ones back home.
“One Uyghur man living here in Washington, D.C., was approached by a Mandarin-speaking woman who asked, ‘If you get poisoned, do you know how to treat yourself? The Chinese government is very powerful.’ She went on, ‘You could die in a car accident or get poisoned.’ What a chilling encounter,” he said. “And just last month, we saw two men arrested in New York for operating a secret Chinese police station that was there to intimidate and control China’s citizens abroad — right here in the United States.”
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed the People’s Republic of China operation in Manhattan’s Chinatown section to provide surveillance and harassment of Chinese dissidents in the United States.
“The PRC’s actions go far beyond the bounds of acceptable nation-state conduct. We will resolutely defend the freedoms of all those living in our country from the threat of authoritarian repression,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a news release.
The Iranian government has attempted to kidnap and return a woman from Brooklyn, N.Y., because she vocally opposed that country’s mandatory hijab laws, Merkley said, adding that Saudi Arabia and Egypt also have “gone after exiles on U.S. territory.”
Merkley urged the Senate to pass the Transnational Repression Policy Act, which he introduced in March with Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn. He added encouragement for the House to introduce and pass its own version of the bill.
“Thanks to technology and the globally interconnected nature of modern society, authoritarianism is no longer contained to authoritarian states.”
“Thanks to technology and the globally interconnected nature of modern society, authoritarianism is no longer contained to authoritarian states. The United States and the world must not only recognize this danger but stand up and work together to put a stop to this menace that is jeopardizing the freedom and well-being of countless people across the planet and violating the sovereignty of democracies around the world.”
USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel said it’s time the world stands up to this troubling trend: “As governments engagement in transnational repression become more brazen, it is imperative for the United States and like-minded governments to respond forcibly. We simply cannot afford complacency.”
Turkel reminded panelists the activity is happening worldwide. Saudi Arabia and Turkey “have weaponized Interpol” by labeling overseas dissidents as terrorists and fugitives in an effort to have them captured and returned from other countries.
“Russia, for example, has actively targeted those who speak out online about human rights violations in the country, and according to media reports, is assisting the government of Iran in doing the same to those protesting mandatory hijab laws. India similarly has sought to silence the voices of Indian activists abroad for expressing concerns about religious freedom in the country, including through extremism and shutting down social media accounts.”
The U.S. State Department has been formally tracking incidents of transnational repression since 2021 and since then has included the topic in its annual human rights report, said Scott Busby, deputy assistant secretary for the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
The department also is training its officers to identify and understand transnational repression and is collaborating with other federal agencies on methods of deterrence, such as visa and investment restrictions, economic sanctions and controls on technology, he said.
But the motivation to continue to use transnational oppression is strong in some countries, Busby added.
“It’s worth noting that governments like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia see themselves as the guardians of morality and religion, and as such view free religious expression as a threat, whether at home or abroad. Religious practice outside those borders, where there may be greater variety of forms of religious expression, such as here in the United States where religious freedom is protected by the Constitution, may be considered particularly threatening.”