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The Chinatown gate in Montreal on March 9.Ryan Remiorz

Irwin Cotler is the international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. Noah Lew is a special adviser to Mr. Cotler and a third-year law student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

The recent revelations regarding China’s interference in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian elections have raised concerns about the influence of foreign governments in Canada. For the first time, many Canadians are realizing the grave dangers posed by authoritarian regimes to their country’s democratic institutions.

For some Canadians, however, the spectre of authoritarian interference is an issue they have been painfully aware of for years – and indeed one that looms over them on a daily basis. These Canadians – most of whom are newcomers to Canada or members of diasporic communities – regularly face the significant and growing threat of transnational repression.

Transnational repression refers to authoritarian regimes’ extraterritorial efforts to silence, deter, undermine and threaten dissidents and activists who oppose them. It constitutes the exportation of those regimes’ oppressive practices and policies beyond their own borders. The manifestations of transnational repression range from physical attacks – such as the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal by Russian agents in Britain, or the gruesome assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey – to digital repressions, such as doxxing, spying and sending threatening messages. All forms of transnational repression are pernicious violations of international law, and should be equally condemned and combatted.

Canadians are especially vulnerable to the growing global threat of transnational repression. Nearly one in five Canadians are foreign-born, and Canada has many significant diasporic communities. These groups tend to be primary targets. Indeed, in the past few years alone, members of Canada’s Chinese, Iranian, Saudi, Rwandan, Pakistani, Egyptian and Syrian diasporas have all been victims of different forms of transnational repression. Some were even targeted by operations brazenly based on Canadian soil – for example, the alleged Chinese government police stations that have been found in Ontario, British Columbia and now Quebec.

Canada’s current legal and policy responses to the threat of transnational repression are inadequate. Victims in Canada say that their efforts to report threats, harassment or other forms of abuse to law enforcement tend to be met with very little response, or none at all. As a result, many activists and dissidents no longer bother to disclose the incidents.

The negative effects of transnational repression in Canada are substantial. On an individual level, victims report fearing for their lives and the lives of their families, as well as serious mental-health effects. On a systemic level, in many cases the goals of transnational repression are accomplished – human-rights activists and dissidents are successfully silenced, which enables the continuation of authoritarian regimes’ campaigns of repression and abuse both domestically and abroad.

The danger of foreign interference in our elections is a very real and concerning one – but we should be equally concerned by direct threats to Canadian citizens. Transnational repression violates Canadians’ constitutionally protected rights to life, liberty and security of the person, as well as their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. These severe infringements are occurring daily, necessitating urgent legal and policy action.

First, the government needs to embrace a stand-alone definition of transnational repression. Currently, it is not defined in any federal legislation, but is subsumed within the broader issue of foreign interference.

Second, one or multiple law-enforcement agencies must be specifically tasked with combatting transnational repression in Canada. This should include supporting and protecting victims, and the provision of dedicated and accessible avenues for reporting incidents.

Third, the federal government should consider amending the Criminal Code to empower law-enforcement agencies to hold perpetrators of transnational repression accountable, and enable victims to seek legal redress.

Finally, Canada should employ targeted Magnitsky-style sanctions against the perpetrators of transnational repression. Canada has done so in the past – imposing sanctions in both the Skripal and Khashoggi cases, among others. We should be willing to impose such sanctions not only for instances of transnational repression in other countries, but also for those committed against Canadians.

Transnational repression constitutes a major threat to the rules-based international order, and is a powerful tool that enables the world’s worst human-rights offending regimes to silence critics. In Canada, the primary targets are those who have the courage and strength to publicly oppose the abuses and oppression of these autocratic states. It is our duty to protect these dissidents and advocates, and to ensure that the perpetrators of transnational repression cannot operate with impunity.