H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Many Western academics, journalists and diplomats routinely spend time in authoritarian states. Sometimes it’s to attend conferences, or to do research or reporting. Contact with local experts or sources is taken for granted on most of these visits.
Also taken for granted is the value of a Western passport, which is often a gold-plated guarantee of safety for visitors to “security state” countries. So, while the researcher’s risk is minimized, the safety of locals isn’t always a given. In fact, those risks are often not insignificant. Recklessness and carelessness on the part of foreign actors can result in imprisonment, deportation or worse for local experts or “fixers.”
I’m one of those Western researchers who spends a lot of time in authoritarian states. On numerous occasions, I have been present at closed events where foreign researchers or diplomats gather a group to discuss a sensitive political or economic issue. Those events might include locals who do not toe the official authoritarian line. The foreign visitor may perceive the gathering to be under “Chatham House” rules – which encourages a free flow of information and protection of those in attendance – but such limitations aren’t necessarily upheld by all present.
More recently, I was made aware of the case of a local analyst who was part of a panel that included the representative of an authoritarian regime – without being told in advance that the regime official would be there. Another case, even more recent: a reporter who visited another authoritarian state and named a source who didn’t want to be named, which quite probably resulted in that source’s arrest.
To put the local analyst or writer into that position with a partisan – or worse, a representative – of the authoritarian establishment is not merely reckless, it’s direly dangerous.
Sometimes, problems arise from an effort to provide a voice of protest, which is incredibly inappropriate if the risk is not weighed properly. But more often, it’s just a case of foreign visitors failing to be mindful of those risks – risks that they will never face themselves. About 99 per cent of the time, the worst that will happen to foreign researchers is that they will be unable to travel to that authoritarian state again. But that pales in comparison to the local analysts who are forced into exile or jailed as a result. The local, more often than not, cannot rely on a foreign embassy to lobby on their behalf with any degree of forcefulness.
This is the unfortunate reality of this kind of cavalier engagement. The foreign actor gets the result he or she desires – intellectual capital in his or her own research, and diplomatic or journalistic community – and may simply move on to the next research topic if they can no longer travel to that country again. In reality, they do not have skin in the game in the first place. Such figures might write about the evils of the authoritarian state, but they will almost never pay the full price of living under those evils.
None of this means foreigners can’t get research done; it only means they need to be sensible and employ common-sense when they do it. A few guidelines: Irrespective of how much we may think that we understand the situation, we probably will never, ever understand or appreciate the situation better than experts on the ground who actually live there. We might disagree with the local human rights activist or analyst on this issue or that issue, but we cannot discount their experience, concerns and risks simply because we disagree with them. First and foremost, we have to take our cues from them, and especially from rights activists and independent researchers. And when we do establish our own protocols for engaging with vulnerable actors within such authoritarian states, we should construct such protocols in coordination with those actors and activists.
It is an ethical obligation to do what we can to shield them from risk, to hear their voices when they tell us about risks that we may not perceive, and to honour them when they bear witness.