Innocent people in free societies are being targeted by foreign governments – the U.S. must stop it

Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

Some Americans question the value of U.S. global engagement. They believe our government should prioritize domestic issues over foreign policy.  But isolationism is not the answer to our problems here at home. Bad actors threatened by our liberty will always seek to undermine free societies in disruptive ways.  

Many people have sought safety and freedom in the United States after fleeing from the wrath of authoritarian regimes. However, the influence of autocrats in countries like Turkey, Iran, and Belarus reaches far beyond their own borders. Authoritarians seek to target dissidents, activists, and exiles living in third-party countries through a practice called transnational repression. They do this through intimidation, threats of violence, actual violence, surveillance, spyware, and more. Their goal is to silence any opposition to their rule, even beyond borders.  

A recent hearing conducted by the Committee on Homeland Security hosted a panel of experts and targets of transnational repression. This included the former NBA star Enes Kanter Freedom — a Turkish dissident and American citizen who was targeted by the Turkish government for his political and religious stances. The Turkish government tried to extradite him back to Turkey from another country to stand trial for simply sharing his opinions.  

And Freedom is not the only high-profile person who’s been a target of transnational repression. 

Masih Alinejad is a prominent Iranian activist and American citizen who was targeted by the Iranian government in New York City. An Iranian-backed group attempted to kidnap her and take her back to Iran to face punishment for advocating for women’s rights and freedom.  

Roman Protasevich is a Belarusian blogger and dissident. His flight from Athens to Lithuania was forced to land by Belarusian jet fighters, and he was removed from the plane and arrested for criticizing Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. 

The experiences of Freedom, Alinejad, and Protasevich show us that no one is beyond the reach of autocrats. And living in a free society – or being an American citizen – doesn’t offer the protection you might think.  

Even my George W. Bush Institute colleague Joseph Kim has been the target of transnational repression. Joseph is a North Korean escapee and an American citizen. Last year, he was invited before a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council to talk about North Korean human rights. The Chinese delegate there, representing an ally of the North Korean regime, attempted to silence Kim’s voice and blocked the U.N. from livestreaming his testimony.  

The good news is that the U.S. government has become increasingly aware of the practice of transnational repression and is devising ways to stop it. But it’s important that we as Americans understand that this is a real threat that could affect any of us – our neighbors, community members, and even prominent figures and celebrities. 

To quote Joseph in an article he wrote about his experiences being targeted by transnational repression: “We are outraged that they’re trying to do this here in America. If they can get away with it here, they can do it anywhere. Stop them before it’s too late.”