Irwin Cotler is the international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and the former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. Noah Lew is special adviser to Mr. Cotler and a director of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.
There is a war being waged. No, not just a war between Russia and Ukraine, and not just a war between Israel and Hamas. Both of these battles are part of the same struggle – the war being waged against liberal democracies by the worst authoritarian regimes in the world today. Russia, China, Iran and its terrorist proxies – Hamas and Hezbollah – and North Korea: together they comprise a new authoritarian “axis of evil.”
There is a military proverb that generals are always prepared to fight yesterday’s war. Today, Western leaders are seemingly unprepared for, and perhaps unwittingly avoiding, a return to yesterday’s war – the Cold War. They are failing to acknowledge the fact that we are once again facing a bipolar world, not between two superpowers, but between two ideological alliances – liberal democracies and repressive autocrats, who are engaged in an assault on the rules-based international order. The failure to acknowledge, let alone confront this reality, does not make it any less true.
The co-operation between these autocrats toward repressive and violent ends is sadly not new. As one example, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s murderous campaign against his own people, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands dead and millions of refugees, has long been supported by Ayatollah Khamenei’s Iran and its terrorist proxies, and aided by Russian air strikes.
In recent months, however, the co-ordination between these authoritarian states has deepened and become increasingly brazen and threatening. In October, Russia’s Vladimir Putin – the subject of an international arrest warrant – was welcomed in Beijing by Xi Jinping for the Belt and Road Initiative forum. At the forum, they publicly expressed their commitment to co-ordinating their increasingly pernicious foreign policy aims, amidst their respectively intensifying domestic repression. A week later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Tehran to meet with the Iranian leadership, which has also recently deepened the horrific repression of its own people in response to the courageous Woman, Life, Freedom demonstrations.
It is likely no coincidence that only one month before the horrific Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh – who lives lavishly in Qatar – was in Moscow to meet with Russia’s Mr. Lavrov, having also recently visited Tehran. Hamas’s crimes against humanity against Israeli civilians were then perpetrated with Russian, Iranian, and North Korean weapons, financed and supported by the Iranian regime.
At the same time, Russia’s ongoing criminal aggression and mass atrocities in Ukraine are being facilitated by Iranian drones and North Korean weapons, while the economic and political survival of the repressive totalitarian regime in North Korea remains dependent on China’s long-standing support. Within China, there is the genocide being committed against the Uyghurs, the continuing repression of Tibet, and the increasing subjugation of Hong Kong and persecution of the Falun Gong. Concurrently, the menacing threat to nearby democratic Taiwan continues to grow.
It is not just those democracies that have the misfortune to neighbour a member of the axis of evil that are under threat. While for Israel and Ukraine the war being waged is a bloody and existential one, the rest of the world’s liberal democracies are also under attack – only covertly. In these countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and many European nations, authoritarians are waging their war through three primary methods – electoral interference, transnational repression, and the spreading of harmful disinformation.
Frighteningly, this covert warfare is working. Russian electoral interference likely impacted the 2020 American election, and a recent American intelligence briefing showed that Russia has attempted to interfere with the elections of numerous countries around the world. Transnational repression, a growing phenomenon, is effective in silencing and deterring journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists – many of whom have fled authoritarian states, only to find that their new liberal democratic homes are failing to adequately protect them from the very threats from which they fled. Disinformation is convincing domestic populaces – most effectively those on the far-left and far-right of the political spectrum – of false and harmful narratives, causing distrust and instability.
In a word, we are confronted with an increasingly co-ordinated and threatening authoritarian axis of evil seeking to assault and reshape the international rules-based order, employing both overt and covert warfare in their efforts to undermine liberal democracy. The community of democracies must strategically unite and individually commit to combatting these pernicious domestic intrusions, and must staunchly stand behind those who have been forced to fight bloody wars against the authoritarians on their doorstep.