As authoritarians bring the battle for freedom to us, democracies must unite to fight back

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Authoritarians want to maintain power at any cost — by trampling upon liberties in their own countries, but also by injecting their influence into free societies.

We don’t have to imagine what this intrusion would look like because it’s already happening.

The non-profit Freedom House calls the phenomenon of authoritarians silencing dissidents outside their borders “transnational repression” and argues it has gotten worse this century because of technological changes, states cooperating against migrants, and more common cross-border violence.

Authoritarians are bringing the fight for freedom to us, testing democracies’ resolve to defend our values on our own turf. If nothing changes, the United States and its allies risk the safety and liberty of our own citizens and foreign dissidents residing within our borders. Washington must start rallying free countries against this threat and strengthen infrastructure that counters it — and tackle the issue head on at the Summit for Democracy that President Biden will host in December.

Freedom House has catalogued 608 cases of transnational repression committed by 31 different countries since 2014. They include physical attacks; manipulation of other countries and their institutions to return members of a diaspora or prevent their cross-border mobility; and intimidation campaigns conducted against individuals and their families back home. 

Nowhere is off limits.

Belarusian journalist Roman Prostasevich discovered this when he boarded a Ryan Air flight from Greece to Lithuania. Fighter jets intercepted the plane over Belarus’ airspace and forced it to land in Minsk. Authorities boarded the aircraft and took Protasevich before allowing the plane to depart.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian activist and U.S. citizen living in Brooklyn, was the target of an alleged kidnapping plot orchestrated by Tehran. While that plan was foiled, The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was less fortunate when he was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul. Then there’s Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur activist and U.S. citizen who has exposed Beijing’s genocidal policies against her people. The Chinese Communist Party responded by unjustly imprisoning her family back in China.

And no one is immune.

You don’t need to be a member of a diaspora to be targeted.

Bill Browder, an American-born, British citizen, experienced this when he was arrested in Spain after Russia issued a politically motivated warrant through Interpol. Browder, a prominent Putin critic, had inspired the Magnitsky Act, which allows the United States to sanction officials of a foreign government implicated of human rights abuses anywhere in the world. His activism also made him a target for Russian authorities. Spanish police held Browder in custody – presumably for extradition to Moscow – before the mistake was discovered.

The United States and other democracies must signal to these regimes that they will pay a steep price for these sorts of attacks. The December democracy summit is a good place to start.

The United States and its allies should coordinate diplomatic pressure and take serious steps to freeze all authoritarian financial assets in democratic countries in response to these incursions. Also, to counter authoritarians’ efforts to exploit unwelcoming immigration policies and xenophobia in democratic societies, they should make meaningful commitments to increase the number of refugees and asylum seekers they allow in, streamline admission processes for these vulnerable populations where possible, and better integrate them into society.

Democracies must also consider bold initiatives that will make authoritarians think twice about their tactics. For example, NATO might recognize transnational repression, particularly against citizens of member states, as cause to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – an attack on one is an attack on all. That would allow members to determine a proportional joint response. 

Democracies should also find ways to respond to authoritarians who have coerced private companies into doing their dirty work.

Ahead of Russia’s September elections, the Kremlin pressured American tech companies Apple and Google into removing an app from their stores that helped voters coordinate support for opposition candidates. Apple has also found itself at odds with Beijing over customer privacy and censorship in China — bowing to Beijing’s wishes and compromising its own data-security policies for Chinese customers. 

If authoritarians believe they can disregard democratic norms, co-opt companies and institutions and attack anyone they please with impunity, how secure can we feel in our daily lives? 

Ignoring this problem has consequences. When America shrinks from its responsibility as leader of the free world, tyranny fills the void. Thankfully, we know its kryptonite — strengthening democracy worldwide — and mustn’t waver in using it. 

Christopher Walsh is senior program manager for the Human Freedom and Women’s Initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. The Bush Institute is partnering with Freedom House and other organizations on a series called “Reimagining American Democracy.”

Tags authoritarian governments Christopher Walsh Democracy International Joe Biden

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