In November last year, Ken McCallum, the Director General of the UK’s Security Service known as MI5, claimed that his agency had identified “at least ten” potential threats to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the Iranian regime. He added that the Iranian intelligence services “are prepared to take reckless action” against opponents in the West, including by luring individuals to Iran.
Coming at a time of intense civil unrest in Iran following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for incorrectly wearing her hijab, McCallum’s comments highlighted a concerning issue that applies to several of the countries CSW works on: repressive regimes are becoming increasingly unafraid to reach beyond their borders.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples is China, a global superpower which regularly uses its economic and geopolitical influence to shape decisions in international fora such as the Human Rights Council, and routinely metes out sanctions against Western parliamentarians and others who openly condemn the widespread violations taking place in the country.
In March 2022, Benedict Rogers, CSW’s Senior Analyst for East Asia and Founder of the NGO Hong Kong Watch (HKW), received a formal warning from the Hong Kong Police Force’s National Security Department with the threat either of three years in jail or a fine of HK $100,000 (approx. £12,800 GBP) for HKW on the grounds that the NGO’s website allegedly violated the National Security Law. HKW is one of the first foreign organisations to be targeted by this law. Rogers, his neighbours and his family members have also received threatening, harassing and intimidatory mail, post-marked from Hong Kong. He is not alone in receiving mail of this kind.
Such harassment is indicative of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s increasingly blatant disregard for human rights, and yet few would have ever predicted that members of the regime would have acted as brazenly as they did in Manchester on 16 October 2022.
On that day, as over 2,000 CCP officials were convening in Beijing for the 20th Party Congress, pro-democracy protesters gathered outside the Chinese Consulate in Manchester to make their voices – and their criticisms of the actions of the CCP – heard. Protests such as these have been held outside Chinese embassies in the UK and other countries for years, and no doubt will continue to be held for many more; however, what happened next was wholly unprecedented.
Video footage shows staff from the consulate coming out wearing motorcycle helmets and vandalising the protesters’ signs before dragging one of those gathered, Mr Bob Chan, onto embassy grounds and proceeding to beat him severely, even as police attempt to intervene.
Chan was hospitalised, and sustained bruises to his eye, neck and back, as well as a scar on his face. One of China’s most senior diplomats in the UK, Zheng Xiyuan, swiftly alleged that protesters had tried to “storm” the embassy. However, the footage indicates otherwise, and as Chan reiterated in a statement of his own: “I was dragged into the consulate. I did not attempt to enter the consulate.”
Allegations that Zheng can be clearly identified among the attackers in the video footage appear to have been confirmed when the diplomat claimed that it was his “duty” to attack Chan. China recalled Zheng and five other officials from the UK in December 2022.
For CSW, the assault on Mr Chan brought to mind recent violence outside another diplomatic mission – the Eritrean Embassy in London – which took place in September 2022, when counter-protesters to a pro-government gathering were violently attacked by supporters of the Eritrean regime before being forcefully dispersed by police.
Of course, there were key differences in this incident – namely the involvement of a larger mob of pro-government protesters and the apparent absence of any official members of the Eritrean regime in the violence – however the concern it raises is similar: that of a government whose reach and repression extends far beyond its borders even as it carries out egregious human rights violations at home.
Supporters of the Eritrean regime, many of whom have sought asylum in other nations disingenuously, are often galvanised by the government to harass, intimidate and even attack government opponents abroad, including in the UK. Despite this, in the incident on 4 September, police unwittingly took the side of the oppressor by dispersing and arresting those who were standing for truth and justice, and almost a week later Eritrean youth who had gathered to protest peacefully against a pro-government “festival” were similarly maltreated by Swedish police.
As well as assaulting counter protestors, Eritrean government supporters also target individuals deemed to have offended the regime. Two journalists, one British and the other Eritrean, were lured to separate locations in London in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and were assaulted by the same man. On both occasions other government supporters were present to assist with the assaults, including by filming them for distribution on social media.
One of the Eritrean authorities’ lesser-known means of repression is the use of a 2% tax levied on Eritreans living overseas. This tax is collected by Eritrea’s diplomatic and consular offices around the world and viewed as compulsory. Non-compliance carries penalties ranging from harassment and denial of consular services, to punishment by association of relatives in Eritrea.
The regime has been accused many times across many countries of threatening and coercing Eritreans into paying the tax. In 2011 the UN Security Council called on Eritrea to, “cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other individuals of Eritrean descent,” and Eritrean diplomats have been expelled from Canada and the Netherlands for ignoring calls to stop the tax levies.
In October 2022, Lord Alton of Liverpool launched a report on the impact of the levy tax in the UK and called for an urgent investigation, especially over concerns it is helping to fund the ongoing war in Ethiopia.
We must do better
The international community must do better. Any state that prides itself on being a peaceful democracy must also ensure that it provides safety and support for those fleeing human rights violations – not only by offering them a home, but by demonstrating to the regimes of China, Eritrea and Iran, and indeed of other countries of concern such as Russia, that they are not free to act as they please within the borders of other sovereign nations.
The provision of support and services to those who have been victims of transnational repression is also critical, while trainings and workshops for police services and appropriate government departments overseeing responses to reports of transnational repression are key to the enactment of safeguards and robust action where such violations occur.
We must not stop there either. We must remember that the actions of China, Eritrea and Iran on other nations’ soil are just a drop in the ocean in comparison to the violations they are carrying out on their own; and we must continue to do everything in our power to hold all three countries to account at every opportunity.
By CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas CMG
Featured Image: Video footage shows Bob Chan being attacked inside the grounds of the Chinese Consulate in Manchester on 16 October 2022. Credit: Facebook/PAMTSUK