Peter Bye

The conviction by a court in Belgium in early February 2021 of an Iranian diplomat for planning an attack on an international rally acted as a trigger for this piece. The rally, an annual event, was held in Paris by an Iranian dissident group[1]. It caught my attention because I have met a number of the dissidents, most of whom have endured gross abuse by the Iranian régime, including the murder of friends and family members. The rally was attended by thousands of people from around the world, including senior politicians and other prominent individuals from many countries.

A day or two after the conviction of the diplomat, The Economist published a piece about repressive countries attacking dissident citizens abroad[2]. The attacks range from intimidation, such as threatening relatives back at home to force a behaviour change, forced repatriation, up to murder by various means. Here are just a couple of the more notorious examples.

Russia was involved in one of them. Sergei Skripal was the target of an assassination attempt in March 2018, in the city of Salisbury[3] in the UK. Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok. They survived but an uninvolved person died after finding and handling the perfume spray used to coat the Skripal’s door handle. The would-be assassins had thrown the spray away in a bush after the attempted murder. The attackers were subsequently traced back to Russia.

The other example is the murder of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; it was a particularly grisly affair[4]. Mr Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi government but not a particularly strident one. He went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to collect some documents connected with a planned marriage; he never came out. He was drugged, murdered and dismembered in the consulate.

There are many more examples. In most cases, the governments of the offending countries refuse to admit, or at least attempt to minimise, their involvement. Russia denied any responsibility in the Skripal case, even suggesting that the attack could have been arranged by the UK. The suspects themselves did not try to hide the fact that they were in Salisbury: that would be rather difficult as they were identified as entering the UK and were caught on video camera in the city. They claimed that they were in Salisbury as tourists, because they wanted to visit the famous cathedral[5]. The Saudi government blamed the Khashoggi attack on a rogue group, which it said it would prosecute.

The Iranian plan to attack the Paris rally was somewhat different. The Skripal and Khashoggi attacks were directed against specific dissident individuals. Had the Iranian plan been successful, it would have killed or injured many who were not dissidents but prominent people in other countries. It would have been an attack on the wider world. And the diplomatic service of Iran was directly involved in planning the Paris attack: the convicted person was a diplomat.

As the title of The Economist piece suggests, the responsible régimes are repressive. Earlier in February, The Economist intelligence Unit published its 2020 Democracy Index report[6]. The report covers 167 countries, and assesses the level of democracy based on a number of factors, such as free and fair elections, political engagement and the functioning of government. Marks out of 10 are awarded, with an overall average of greater than 8 regarded as a full democracy. Norway is top, with 9.81, while North Korea comes in at number 167 with 1.08. Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia are respectively at 152, 124 and 156, with scores of 2.20, 3.31 and 2.08. It seems reasonable therefore that the countries towards the top end of the democracy scale should complain about the violations by the repressive régimes. The UK (16th with 8.54) and the USA (25th with 7.92) do indeed complain.

Regrettably, some of their own actions are morally dubious, undermining the complaints about the behaviour of the more repressive countries. Here are two examples.

Shamima Begum, who is now 21, left the UK at the age of 15 to join Islamic State. She was found in a Syrian refugee camp in February 2019. She had lost two children and was about to give birth to another, who also died shortly after birth. The UK revoked her British citizenship, claiming that she was also a citizen of Bangladesh, which denied that she was a citizen. This left her stateless. The case is now before the UK supreme court to determine whether or not she can return to the UK to defend her right to citizenship.[7].

In January 2020, the US killed the Irani Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike at Bagdad airport[8]. It was clear that Soleimani was dangerous, as he was a senior figure in Iran’s campaign of destabilisation in the Middle East. However, the legality of the attack was questionable[9].

The good news is that, when democracies violate the rules, as in the cases above, there are vigorous objections and investigations from free journalism and legal authorities. Unlike the actions of the likes of Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia (and more), morally dubious actions by democratic governments are hard to hide. However, great care is needed to avoid giving repressive régimes any excuse for their behaviour. And democratic societies must be careful to guard against a decline in their own standards. Within Europe, the slide towards authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland is a concern. In the USA, Donald Trump’s apparent disinclination to support human rights is a warning. He may have gone now but the kind of xenophobia and disregard for rules he encouraged is still a force. And the UK needs to be careful, as the government attempts all-too-often to bypass Parliament and to promote cronies into the House of Lords.

Notes and sources

[1] A report on the verdict can be found at France bomb plot: Iran diplomat Assadollah Assadi sentenced to 20 years – BBC News

[2] See Brutality without borders – Repressive regimes are tightening their grip on their citizens abroad | International | The Economist

[3] See Salisbury poisoning: What did the attack mean for the UK and Russia? – BBC News

[4] See Jamal Khashoggi: All you need to know about Saudi journalist’s death – BBC News

[5] See Salisbury novichok suspects say they were only visiting cathedral | UK news | The Guardian

[6] See Democracy Index 2020 – Economist Intelligence Unit ( The site may require registration. .A summary can be found at Democracy Index – Wikipedia

[7] See Shamima Begum: supreme court to decide next week on UK return | Shamima Begum | The Guardian

[8] See Qasem Soleimani: US kills top Iranian general in Baghdad air strike – BBC News

[9] See Qasem Soleimani: US strike on Iran general was unlawful, UN expert says – BBC News

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  1. Another insightful article Peter! In reading The Economist front-to-back each week I seem to have not given their referenced article the regard it was clearly due. Many thanks for bringing it to my attention with your well-considered post!

    You also made the excellent point that Qasem Soleimani’s assassination was unlawful. Too many Americans saw him as an enemy combatant and “fair game” without considering how we would feel if one of our generals was terminated on our soil. Countless innocent Iranians would doubtless have been killed after we reacted to their country’s “declaration of war” in this hypothetical scenario. By assassinating Iran’s general we have doubtless created many more future jihadists. We should be seeking to slow cycles of vengeance, rather than adding spin to each revolution of the violence millstone. Too many are grist for that mill already.

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