Opinion | Repression Without Borders


Alexander Cooley, the director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and a co-author of “Dictators Without Borders,” which focuses on Central Asia, told a Senate hearing on the tools of transnational repression in September 2019 that the current wave of extraterritorial repression is “foremost an outcome of the recent global backlash against democratization,” which has produced “a more aggressive and a savvier breed of autocrat.” These despots have reframed democratic opponents and civil society activists as security threats and decided to pursue them wherever they flee.

What makes the practice especially malign is that in pursuing their critics, authoritarian rulers have often adopted the tools and arguments of liberal democracies, giving their actions the sheen of legitimacy or at least the pretext that everybody does it. The global war on terror launched by the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks two decades ago has provided an especially handy rhetorical tool for painting political gadflies as terrorists or extremists.

Interpol, the international criminal police organization, has been an especially popular tool of the autocrats to hunt down their critics. Though Interpol is specifically precluded in its constitution from using its alert system for political reasons, according to testimony at that 2019 Senate hearing, the volume of Interpol alerts has soared over the past two decades, and among their major users were Russia, China and smaller illiberal governments like Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, India and Venezuela. Tajikistan, the smallest of the Central Asian states, with a notoriously brutal government, has alone issued at least 2,500 “red notices,” the Interpol request for worldwide assistance in nabbing a fugitive. Russia is responsible for 38 percent of red notices.

Authoritarian regimes have become savvier about using the internet and social media to track and spy on dissidents. Ramzan Kadyrov, the unapologetically brutal head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, made no bones about that in remarks directed to the Chechen diaspora in 2016, saying, “This modern age and technology allow us to know everything, and we can find any of you.”

The irony is that much of this technology was developed in democracies to safeguard them against the likes of Mr. Kadyrov. Last month, The Washington Post and a number of other news organizations reported that sophisticated Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli NSO Group apparently has been used by a number of governments to target journalists, human rights activists and private citizens. (NSO has disputed the findings of the investigation.)

The moral ambiguity inherent in such technology makes it difficult to refute the familiar strongman claim that they are only doing what leaders of democracies routinely do. Mr. Kadyrov’s quote is uncomfortably similar to what former President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer said after the C.I.A. began using armed drones to strike at terrorists: “We will fight the war on terrorism wherever we need to fight the war on terrorism.”

The use of lethal drone strikes escalated dramatically under President Barack Obama’s administration. By the end of 2009, his first year in office, the C.I.A. had conducted its 100th drone strike in Pakistan, a country with which the United States was not at war. His administration also ordered the first targeted killing of an American by drone without due process, the strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American imam, in 2011.


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