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Addressing transnational repression against human rights defenders

At the 55th session of the Human Rights Council, ISHR's Executive Director Phil Lynch joined a panel of State representatives, UN experts, and civil society actors in discussing transnational repression, delving into its definition, forms, and vital recommendations for States and experts in moving forward.

The event aimed at dissecting the complexity of transnational repression by examining its definition, various manifestations, and the strategies employed by States to silence or punish human rights defenders beyond their borders. It also shed a light on the profound impact these repressive actions have on the families and associates of the defenders, thereby highlighting the issue’s broad and multifaceted nature.

What is transnational repression?

Speaking on behalf of ISHR, Phil Lynch provided an in-depth definition of transnational repression, describing it as ‘the measures taken by States, both within their territories and extraterritorially, to prevent, silence, or punish individuals who expose human rights violations or advocate for accountability from abroad.’ This repression targets individuals directly or indirectly and often aims at instilling a broader chilling effect on advocacy and dissent. Crucially, Lynch noted that it is the act’s intended impact, rather than the act itself, that is extraterritorial or transnational—specifically, to prevent, silence, or punish scrutiny of a country’s human rights practices from abroad. He further emphasised that transnational repression includes supplying spyware, surveillance technologies, and arms to third countries when there is a foreseeable risk these tools will be used to silence or punish human rights advocacy or dissent. He argued that States concerned about transnational repression should refrain from providing or facilitating access to such tools for third States.

The multifaceted nature of transnational repression

ISHR’s examination of transnational repression reveals a multifaceted and brutal reality. From the extrajudicial killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents in Turkey to the abductions and disappearances of Uyghur activists orchestrated by China, these acts starkly illustrate the lengths to which States will go to silence opposition. As a contemporary example, ISHR highlighted the apparent targeted killings of human rights defenders and journalists by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in Gaza and the West Bank, and the global complicity in these actions through the provision of surveillance technologies and arms, points to a deeply entrenched system of repression.

Further compounding the issue, ISHR pointed to the chilling examples of individuals and their families being targeted indirectly. Cases like Muhammad al-Ghamdi’s, who faced the death penalty in Saudi Arabia as a means to silence his brother, and Noel Zihabamwe, whose advocacy work led to his brothers’ forced disappearance in Rwanda, demonstrate the insidious nature of transnational repression: it frequently not only seeks to silence the direct voice of dissent but also to break the spirit of communities and families associated with human right defenders.

Charting the path forward

Faced with the daunting landscape of transnational repression, ISHR outlined seven key recommendations for States to address the issue, namely:

  1. Don’t commit acts of transnational repression
  2. Immediately and unconditionally release all persons detained in connection with their human rights advocacy, whether in the country or abroad
  3. Don’t support or acquiesce in acts of transnational repression (such as through mutual legal assistance, extradition or refoulement to states engaged in the persecution of defenders)
  4. Don’t provide the tools of transnational repression (such as spyware and arms)
  5. Build community awareness, and law enforcement capabilities, to recognise, report and respond to acts of transnational repression
  6. Publicly denounce, investigate and pursue accountability for acts of transnational repression, including through sanctions and diplomatic repercussions
  7. Prioritise human rights in foreign policy and relations both at the bilateral and multilateral levels, adopting a principled and consistent approach to human rights in all situations, without selectivity and without discrimination

ISHR also emphasised the role of UN experts in recognising and addressing the growing threat of transnational repression to human rights and the rule of law, urging them to take up cases, issue communications and make recommendations to states to counter this worsening practice.

Watch a short compilation of the event’s highlights put together by the US Permanent Mission here

For further cases and recommendations on transnational repression, also see Human Rights Watch’s report “We Will Find You”: A Global Look at How Governments Repress Nationals Abroad.

States must end transnational repression, free all detained for advocating human rights, and reject any support for such repression, including the provision of surveillance tools or arms. It's crucial to empower communities and law enforcement to address this issue, to openly condemn and seek accountability for these acts, and to embed human rights principles firmly in all aspects of foreign policy, ensuring a consistent and non-discriminatory stance on human rights globally.
Phil Lynch, Executive Director, ISHR

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