John Packer is the Neuberger-Jesin Professor of International Conflict Resolution at the University of Ottawa.
This week, Canadians awoke to the idea – and possibly the fact – that one or more foreign agents murdered one of our neighbours in broad daylight … then slipped away. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took our breath away when he informed the nation that there are “credible allegations of a potential link” with the June killing in Surrey, B.C., of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a devoted Sikh nationalist, and agents of the Indian state. If true (as our government surely believes), such a political assassination carried out by foreign agents against a Canadian citizen in Canada would be unprecedented. But it should not come as a surprise as it wouldn’t be the first attempt in Canada, nor is it out of step with similar incidents elsewhere. Indeed, with geopolitical tensions mounting around the world, such incidents are likely to become more common, and our leaders in Canada need to take steps to protect our citizens.
Mr. Nijjar’s activism and background were of course well known to Canadian intelligence and security services, to the government of India and even to the Canadian public. Indeed, leading up to his murder, it appears he was warned of threats against him. Mr. Nijjar publicly spoke his political convictions and energetically promoted them. Such was his right to do so in the open, democratic, rights-respecting country that is Canada. This should also be the case in India, even as Mr. Nijjar is accused there of links with terrorism. No one should pay with their lives for their opinions or speech, nor even be subject to limitations on their freedoms, absent due process of law.
Evidently, protective interventions by Canadian security services failed Mr. Nijjar, as did the rule of law. It failed us all. And that is cause for the greatest of concern and merited outrage. For extrajudicial executions and extraterritorial assassinations violate the essence of sovereignty – of Canada’s exclusive jurisdiction, of the sanctity of territorial integrity and of the rule of law on which we all sleep and wake each day. If we are not secure in this very fundamental sense, then all else may be in doubt and we may reasonably reconsider our own freedom and our own measures for security and liberty.
Whatever the particulars of the Nijjar case, such threats have been present for several years. Only a few years ago, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was accused of sending a hit squad to Canada to kill former Saudi intelligence official Saad Al-Jabri, who had fled to Canada in exile. This came on the heels of the news of the gruesome assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, just two weeks before he was to address an Arab diaspora workshop my colleagues and I were set to host at the University of Ottawa. At the time, still uncertain of his fate, we left a chair empty for him. But most attendees expected he had been murdered; their fear was palpable in wavering voices.
Iranian Canadians had similarly been reporting their concerns. A hardly disguised and often blatant campaign by Iranian state agents has been deployed against outspoken diaspora members, including many in Canada, as reported by the American NGO Freedom House and by numerous Canadians of Iranian origin. Explicit threats of killing and other intimidation have been recorded, causing Freedom House to include Iran among six states (also China, Russia, Turkey, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia) conducting aggressive campaigns against political opponents overseas.
These are not fantastic overimaginations. Transnational repression has long been an instrument of authoritarian regimes with the means and absence of scruples to use it abroad in violation of every norm and standard of international law. In the early 1990s, I investigated and reported for the United Nations upon such cases by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime – oil rich, technically proficient and ruthless. Of course there were infamous cases by others – such as the assassination of former Iranian prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar in a Paris suburb in August, 1991. More recently, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has sent assassins around the world to poison political opponents such as Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei and Yulia Skripal as, respectively, polonium and novichok were introduced to international relations vocabulary. Lately, a number of Russian businessmen and other leaders with loose lips or uncertain loyalty have been likely assisted in falling out of windows around the world. In short, geography does not prevent the projection of violent politics from abroad from piercing peace and security here in Canada. This week, Canadians have realized that three oceans and an historically friendly neighbour to the south are clearly insufficient by themselves to assure our security.
The case of Mr. Nijjar has surely shone a bright light on these risks, something that could not have escaped Canadian authorities. In fact, the Khalistan movement and core elements of it have fomented for decades – even generations – in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. And the link between extreme nationalist and separatist politics and violence is neither mere imagination nor benign in terms of fragile multiethnic and religiously diverse India – or “Bharat” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi preferred to call the country during the Group of 20 Summit, referencing the Hindu nationalist ideology that is driving his country toward increasing intolerance, exclusion, conflict and volatility. In such contexts, violence ratchets up.
We may never know the truth about Mr. Nijjar’s murder. But the risk of transnational repression globally is growing as authoritarian regimes become emboldened and increasingly shameless in their efforts to silence opponents at home and abroad by any and all means – damned be the tenets of international law. Freedom House’s detailed reporting evidences the rapidly expanding global phenomenon, including specifically in Canada.
Canada is an increasing target because of the combination of our open society and our lauded policy of giving refuge to the persecuted, having welcomed more than one million refugees since 1980, with increasing numbers in the past few years. Their exile or refuge in Canada often does not end their opposition to their home countries’ regimes. Sometimes activists of various kinds – human-rights defenders, proponents of democracy, religious minorities, anti-corruption sleuths, scholars at risk, determined environmentalists – remain active from Canada and sometimes increase their energy, means and effectiveness in exile. Separatists are certainly amongst these, with around 70 such movements currently active in the world – some advocating rebellion and other violent means.
While the phenomenon of activists-in-exile is not new, as a result of technology, the world has shrunk. Activists’ reach and effectiveness has increased – as has that of the regimes pushing back – substantially increasing the number and extent of transnational incidents. The threats are real from both perspectives. Activists-in-exile no longer spend their time composing pamphlets, which may take months to smuggle across frontiers at dawn or dusk. Instant communications, social media, complex cryptocurrency financing and other tools are in play. We now live in an era of hybrid war, and competing political ideologies are not limited by geography or time.
The fact is that Canada is both a refuge and a haven. In the past five years, the largest number of refugees arriving in Canada have come from Mexico, Turkey, Haiti, Colombia and Iran, while Canada is already home to about 3.7 million dual nationals, including large populations from China and volatile South Asian and African countries. Some return to their countries of origin. Notably, there are 300,000 Canadians now in Hong Kong – subject to China’s draconian National Security Law. Indeed, in many of my professional experiences in conflicts around the world, I have met Canadians holding positions of authority in foreign governments or advising political movements in highly contested, violent contexts, such as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and so forth. Indeed, this is now the case for a number of East European countries. Canadians (especially in Quebec) should have a deep sense of all this. The October Crisis, in 1970, had some of these features – long before the internet, smartphones and cryptocurrencies were invented.
In this more complex and dangerous world that we now live in, we will increasingly face the risk of extreme interventions from foreign states that will clash with Canada’s values as a free and open society. Herein lies a dilemma. As a democratic state, Canada must respect human rights and the rule of law, which limits the tools and measures that can be used against malign forces. Democracies must be clear-eyed and vigilant in investing in the means to protect ourselves – physically and otherwise. Naive slogans, performative politics and wishful thinking only court the known perils. Instead, sober assessments, sufficient investments and the maintenance of close alliances are imperative to secure the very freedom we cherish.