Asylum to Stay Not Flee | Opinion

It is easy to lose sight of the escalating reprisals against journalists and protesters from Belarus to Myanmar. These courageous individuals know their fate potentially lies in prison. How can we protect these journalists and protesters, who represent one of the few voices left for democracy in their respective countries?

The United States should offer a novel form of expedited American citizenship, what I call "protest asylum," to those journalists and protesters who do not flee. This is distinct from political asylum, which offers protection to individuals in fear of political persecution who want to or have fled. Extending U.S. citizenship to journalists and protesters determined to stay in their home countries would allow the U.S. government to petition for their release if they are jailed for allegedly subversive acts. It would also pressure despots to ensure the physical safety of the protesters while they are in prison.

Beyond minimizing human rights abuses, such an innovative foreign policy tool would also serve U.S. interests against authoritarianism. It is widely understood that dictatorial regimes demean the lives of millions within their borders and degrade the political processes of existing democracies. They can do so in myriad ways, from cyberattacks to widening divisions on social media. Dictatorships can also erode civil society's democratic efforts within other authoritarian regimes, by exporting censorship tools and military weapons to other despots.

The U.S. has few feasible policy levers to end dictatorships. Waiting for more Gorbachevs is hope, not strategy. After Iraq and Afghanistan, full scale military options are unlikely. Covert attempts and espionage have a mixed history. Propaganda's effectiveness is uncertain, plus it can backfire if a dictatorship reciprocates. The training of foreign elite military, diplomatic, political and economic officers should be increased, but it is a long-term, contingent play.

The work of journalists and protesters in calling out brutal regimes is one of the most promising avenues toward toppling dictators. Having the U.S. offer protest asylum would potentially embolden existing journalists and protesters and encourage more dissent against despotic regimes.

Journalists and protesters need all the help they can get given that most democratic movements against authoritarian regimes failed in the last decade, while non-violent uprisings across the globe are at an all-time high. Dictators have honed a middle ground between surrender and overwhelming force to wear down democratic oppositions. They block NGOs and independent media, gradually increase pressure against protesters, routinely arrest individuals in waves and monitor internet communication.

State parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol are required to offer asylum to those fleeing another country who have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Yet dictators can take advantage of this policy. They may secretly welcome the well-meaning system, tolerating political asylum as a convenient way to practically rid themselves of those demanding democracy, viewing it as a pressure release valve.

Protesters ask others to retreat
Protesters ask others to retreat after police fired tear gas on February 28, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar. Hkun Lat/Getty Images

The journalists and protesters who accept the potential fate of punishment, instead of bowing to serious threats, pose the largest concern to dictators. These brave individuals will continue to inspire others and to speak out locally and internationally. Their willingness to sacrifice themselves in order to expose the tragic side of authoritarianism commands respect. Yet this is the group the international community does the least to protect.

Offering protest asylum would patch this policy hole, being a new addition to the limited playbook that democracies have in fighting for the freedom of the oppressed abroad. Its potential is especially promising against the vast majority of the roughly 50 minor despots across the world.

Dictators will threaten retaliation when democracies offer protest asylum to their citizens, yet if they are not superpowers, their complaints will simply delay the inevitable—the release of the journalists and protesters who newly hold U.S. citizenship. Dictators would likely appreciate that the more U.S. individuals they jail and refuse to release, the more they risk sanctions that sap economic growth. Given that many dictators attempt to legitimize their hold on power through claiming to deliver superior economic performance, not capitulating to demands to release U.S. citizens would crush their façade of authority when sanctions put a stranglehold on economic activity.

Authoritarian regimes might attempt to paint journalists and protesters who receive protest asylum from the U.S. as foreign agents, but they already do that anyway. Also, underestimating the political sophistication of citizens living under dictatorships is a mistake. Some citizens will inevitably side with strongmen, though few who desire freedom will be fooled by such propaganda. Plus, those yearning liberty will welcome, not spurn attempts by democracies to help them.

Even if released from jail, protest asylum may not prevent the eventual expulsion from the country of journalists and protesters. Dictators may prevent asylum protesters from holding two citizenships, potentially forcing them to give up their legal connection to their country. Yet even in this case, journalists and protesters would have more time to advocate for democracy with protest asylum than without it, and protest asylum would provide them significant physical protection.

In offering protest asylum to journalists and protesters of authoritarian regimes, the U.S. could help keep democracy movements alive. If we choose to not lend such an easy hand, what would it say about our willingness to be eternally vigilant in the protection of democracy?

Martin Skladany is a professor of law and international development, law and technology and intellectual property at Penn State Dickinson Law. He is the author of Copyright's Arc (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.