North Africa, West Asia

After Khashoggi: nowhere is safe for dissent

How states weaponize diplomatic immunity against dissidents abroad.

Can Ture
15 October 2019, 11.01am
Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, on October 7, 2018.
Picture by DHA/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

This is the second part of a two part series on international law and how diplomatic space becomes a crime scene. Read part one here.

Apart from breach of diplomatic immunity, the Jamal Khashoggi episode has reminded us of one more thing: The longstanding but recently rising phenomenon of extra-territorial repression of political dissidents. Government critics are no more only a domestic threat for states in the 21st century. Digital communication not only provided them with the opportunities to communicate with their fellow dissidents but also to publicize their dissent to a broader audience worldwide.

The history of extra-territorial silencing dates far back. One of the most famous examples in the 20th century is Trotsky’s murder in Mexico by Soviet agents, at a time when even a letter possibly took weeks to reach from one country to another. However, the convergence of instant communication and the rise of authoritarian states have come to pose serious threats to even single individuals who dare to express their dissent from the safety of their country of refuge.

Prof. Marlies Glasius, an international relations professor at the University of Amsterdam, says, “There has been extraterritorial surveillance and repression against French political exiles during the reign of Napoleon III in 1850, against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, by tsarist Russia against revolutionaries, and by early 20th century European states against anarchists and anti-colonial activists. During Soviet times, the murder of Trotsky was the most (in)famous but not the only incident.”

Although state-ordered repression abroad is closely linked to the rising authoritarianism, it is not limited to states under the iron fist rule. In 1986, the US President Ronald Reagan signed a top-secret covert action finding allowing CIA to carry out paramilitary operations overseas, including kidnapping of terrorism suspects for trial in the United States. Though, when one thinks of the most notorious examples of dissident killings and abductions abroad, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China rank at the top of the list. However, the scarcity of evidence in most cases obscures the role of diplomatic missions and agents in their extra-territorial repression campaigns.

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate has been the most dramatic incident and made headlines all over the globe. The incident caused a scare among Saudi political exiles and revealed past attempts of the Saudi state to trap them to return to the country. But it is only the tip of an iceberg and the culmination of decades long abductions and state harassment of dissident Saudis living predominantly in the US and Europe.

Although the silencing habit of Saudis goes back decades, under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the trend looks more escalated now. Between 2015 and 2017, three dissident Saudi princes living in different cities in Europe disappeared and were returned to the Kingdom. At least one of them was kidnapped in a plot organized by the Saudi embassy in Paris. The part of Saudi diplomatic operatives is unknown in the kidnappings of the other two princes. Similarly, Faisal al-Jarba who sought shelter in Jordan, was detained by Jordanian security and taken to the Saudi embassy in Amman. He was possibly questioned at the embassy and then handed over to Saudi officials at the Saudi border.

Russia is another state that has gained notoriety in the field of extra-territorial repression, though with a crucial difference: Russian operations to silence and expatriate critics predominantly end up lethal, unlike that of Saudis mostly characterized by kidnappings, intimidation and domestic incarcerations with an exception of the Khashoggi case. Russians have typically used poisoning. Used for 5 decades long, poisoning with unidentifiable and undetectable substances have been quite a popular method for silencing Russian diaspora critics. It has become the sign of Russian government’s involvement in the murders. The cases of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, who were both ex-FSB agents and poisoned in 2006 and 2018 in London, respectively, made headlines in western media. The United Kingdom has a special position for Russian diaspora. For a long time, many Russians including government critics, have preferred the UK to spend the rest of their lives, which has made the Russian community in the city vulnerable to Russian spy attacks.

Information providers of the notorious Magnitsky Act investigation, which has caused deep controversy between the US and Russia since 2012, are believed to have been victims of Russian intelligence. Many believe that the suspicious death of five men, including Sergei Magnitsky himself, at least two of whom died abroad, might be linked to Russian government.

Putin’s government even passed a law, providing legal basis for extra-judicial killings abroad in 2006. The law allows for presidential decision to use secret service of the country to combat terrorism and extremism, the latter of which, according to the law, includes “those causing mass disturbances” and “those slandering the individual occupying the post of president of the Russian Federation.” The law was followed by the suspicious deaths of many Russian dissidents, and was feared to embolden Russian intelligence for further assassinations.

China has also carried out a global campaign of abductions under the fancy title of “anti-corruption” for several years. The operation Sky Net 2017, also known as Fox Hunt, was launched by the Chinese government to capture corruption suspects abroad, but seemingly turned into a global dissident hunt. Regime critics, ex-communist party officials, businessmen, and activists have been targeted possibly as a part of the operation. Long-standing domestic silencing allegations about Chinese regime have now become a worldwide hunt of dissent.

Although it was formalized only in 2017 by the announcement of the Fox Hunt, accusations about Chinese repression of dissidents dates back decades ago. Since the 2000s to date, many activists, journalists and government critics have been captured and repatriated from South East Asian countries among which are Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. Although there is no reported incident, Chinese abductions may have taken place in the territories of western nations, including the US, too.

Iran has also carried out a global assassination campaign for decades around the globe since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Political opponents have been targeted in a range of countries including many European ones and the US. The assassinations were quite frequent especially in 1980s and 90s.

Most of the time the part of diplomatic agents in repression against dissidents abroad goes unreported. Except for several journalistic accounts, the issue has not been investigated and its global scope is unknown. “It is often difficult to prove that diplomats are involved, because both home and host country prefer to avoid incidents.” says Glasius.

Compared to Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, Turkey is still a minor player in the league of extra-territorial repression. With the rising authoritarianism under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country has recently been intimidating its critics living abroad. It does so, however, through less brutal and illegal means, by abusing international organizations such as Interpol. For instance, in 2017, Spanish police arrested on Turkish Interpol warrant two Turkish writers who had been exiled for many years. They were both harsh critics of the Turkish government. The writers eventually were released with the efforts of Germany, and Turkey was called by German Chancellor Angela Merkel not to “abuse international organizations like Interpol.”

“It is not the case that there’s just one or two bad apples, because we’ve seen cases of abuse from all over the world” says Alex Mik, Campaigns and Networks Director of Fair Trials, an NGO conducting extensive research projects on the issue. “We are aware of cases of abuse from countries including Russia, China, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Egypt who have targeted their critics by issuing Interpol notices.”

Glasius lists other countries that engage in repressive practices against individuals abroad at varying levels as Algeria, Egypt, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan.

Globalization and changing transportation and communication technologies have turned external threats into domestic ones. Interaction of inland population with the critics speaking out from safe havens is disturbing for a lot of states. Likewise, networking and organization of dissidents abroad are unwanted acts. Glasius points to the speed of communications as the main difference from early periods with an often overlooked caveat: “We used to think this favored the dissidents, but now we are aware that digital communication can be closely monitored, and authoritarian governments have caught up.”

The future of the Vienna Conventions and the rise of rogue states

After the Khashoggi murder in Istanbul, Turkish President Erdogan stated that he expects a revision of the Vienna Conventions, waging controversy among international law experts. What makes Vienna Conventions vulnerable against misuse is not their content per se, but reckless governments that seek consolidating their power by cracking down on dissent both at home and overseas.

International law professor Steven Ratner holds an optimistic opinion about a possible rise in abusing diplomatic immunity, thinking that the Khashoggi assassination will not set a precedent for states that are willing to go down a similar path: "If this were something easy to do, we would have seen a lot of it before now. In fact, we have not." However, Ratner does not rule out the other ways of trapping individuals by taking advantage of diplomatic privileges: "It is much more likely that the embassy will try to lure people back home, meeting with them while they are overseas and saying they should go home. And they go home, and get arrested and are killed. But killing them in the embassy, I am not aware of any precedents before this case. And I am not particularly concerned that it is going to be a precedent for this kind of action. It is, however, a concern that embassies should not be misused generally. There are a lot of other ways they can do nefarious and illegal acts, besides luring somebody and killing them inside.”

Despite Erdogan's expectation, a revision of the Vienna Conventions to any degree seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. Although they are easily violated by a handful of states in many ways, the conventions are seen as a safeguard for their envoys on foreign soil. In the international diplomatic order, immunities and privileges function as assurances that diplomats will not be harassed or persecuted when the relations between the host states and the sending state worsen. The collapse of this rule would presumably cause too much damage to diplomatic relations.

Former ambassador Süha Umar does not believe that the Vienna Conventions will be revised in the near future, adding, "I do not see any shortcoming of them that requires revision." Referencing Erdogan’s expectation that the conventions be revised, Ratner points out the carefully negotiated roots of the conventions in a multilateral form: "They have near unanimous adherence; and treaties like that just do not get revised. I do not know what exactly he would want to revise.”

Ratner, too, does not believe that the Vienna Conventions are going to be changed: “Because states do want to open the door. Can you imagine Ecuador? What would they think about a change like that? They would object it in a second. Because they do not want the UK to be able to come into their embassy and take Assange out.”

Only a few weeks after we conducted this interview with Ratner, the new government of Ecuador lifted Julian Assange's asylum status that was granted by the previous president, and handed him over to British authorities from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, his 7 years long refuge. Nothing can show better how diplomatic immunities and privileges can be instrumentalized according to the changing political priorities of governments.

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