UPDATED: Canadian spies and cybercrime, UN peacekeeping, a summit on democracy and more


Canada’s electronic spy agency acknowledged Monday it has conducted cyber operations against foreign hackers to “impose a cost” for the growing levels of cybercrime.

This is the opening sentence of a globalnews.ca article entitled: Canadian spy agency targeted foreign hackers to ‘impose a cost’ for cybercrime (Alex Boutilier, 6 Dec 2021).

The article goes on to say this marks the first time Canada’s electronic spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), acting under its new mandate, has acknowledged the use of “foreign cyber operations” – a category of operations that can include both “active” (offensive) or defensive tools.

The agency has refused to specify which type of operation it had conducted, clearing leaving open the possibility it was an offensive action.

While the agency is quick to use examples of interrupting terrorist activities in justifying the use of its cyber tools, in this case they are targeting criminal activity. Christopher Parsons, a cybersecurity expert with the renowned Canadian Citizen Lab, comments:

(This) marks a time where, rather than relying on a criminal justice agency to address criminal behaviours, the Canadian government is instead using its most secretive and best-resourced intelligence agency to impede the activities of criminals…

He continues:

While it is positive that the CSE is admitting it has used these powers — and, in doing so, has joined the ranks of its other Five Eyes intelligence partners — there is still much to learn. … (Does this) signify the Government of Canada will be increasingly reliant on cyber operations to disrupt criminals, without trial or conviction, instead of trying to bring them to justice?

Readers of our 8 Oct 2021 blog – Can Canada Emulate New Zealand with some independent security thinking? – will recall our criticism of the Five Eyes Intelligence Network, under American prodding, entering into the Foreign Policy realm. Now we have the extraordinary example of CSE usurping fundamental rule of law activities.

NPSIA’s international security Professor Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS intelligence analyst, comments:

Cybercrime is the primary cyber threat to Canada. … I wonder if the confirmation itself is just kind of the CSE acknowledging the scope of the problem is so severe that they have to become involved as well.

But surely that begs the question of whether we should be abandoning the transparency and multitudinous checks and balances inherent in our criminal justice system – without public debate or a detailed examination of the implications for the rule of law – in favour of covert action by our intelligence operatives?

And then there is the question of blowback from offensive cyber operations

Even when we are talking about nefarious cyber activity by state actors and not criminals, there is still a massive problem with favouring offensive cyber operations over defensive efforts to make our online systems as robust and hacker-proof as possible. The essence of the problem can be summed up in the title of a 2019 Briefing Paper by Ken Barker:

CYBERATTACK: WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND: RISKS OF A CYBERATTACK STRATEGY (Univ. of Calgary School of Public Policy Publications, Vol 12:17).

Written before the Liberal government had passed legislation giving CSE (and the Canadian military in the context of an overseas operation) the authority to engage in cyberwarfare, Ken Barker warns:

Cyberweapons also possess risks of unintended consequences that can make the unintended consequences of kinetic weapons seem trivial. Notably, cyber weapons have a much greater potential to impact targets that were not intended by the attacker.

Beyond the issue of collateral damage is the potentially even greater risk of offensive cybersecurity tools being stolen or reused by malicious actors. The debilitating NotPetya and WannaCry ransomware attacks of 2017 were based on malware stolen from the National Security Agency.

For a thorough, and highly disturbing, review of the manifold dangers in offensive cyber operations, even in response to activities by state actors, let alone in relation to cybercrime, see: How the United States Lost to Hackers (Nicole Perlroth, nytimes.com) 6 Feb 2021:

Only when the N.S.A.’s tools were hacked in 2017, then used against [the U.S.], could we see how broken the trade-off between offense and defense had become. The agency had held onto a critical vulnerability in Microsoft for more than five years, turning it over to Microsoft only after the N.S.A. was hacked.

Whither Canada?

Christopher Parsons has consistently emphasized that the issue of the security of our 5G telecommunications infrastructure is not a Huawei problem per se but an industry-wide issue. See his comprehensive report entitled Huawei & 5G: Clarifying the Canadian Equities and Charting a Strategic Path Forward, available in PDF format here.

With respect to the issue under discussion – the considerable downsides of offensive cyber operations as compared to a defensive strategy focusing on “resiliency and security” –  Parsons urges the adoption of policies by Canada that:

….are designed, first and foremost, to ensure that networks that all Canadians rely on are secure.

Given the manifold dangers of blowback and collateral damage from offensive cyber weapons, we call on the Government of Canada to focus the bulk of our cybersecurity efforts on defensive measures to ensure that our telecommunications networks are as resilient and secure as possible.


A government press release begins:

On 7 Dec 2021 the Honourable Anita Anand, Minister of National Defence, participated in the 2021 Seoul United Nations Peacekeeping Ministerial (UNPKM) virtual conference hosted by South Korea. Minister Anand participated in her role and on behalf of the Honourable Mélanie Joly, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Note first that the Foreign Minister, the lead Minister on UN peacekeeping, was not even in attendance. But that is just a small part of the problem with this announcement.

As CBC’s Senior defence writer Murray Brewster noted in his article on the event:

There was… no mention … of a long-standing, unfulfilled commitment to deliver a quick-reaction force of soldiers for international peace operations….

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

There is something tragically farcical about a pledge of approximately 200 personnel for a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) still languishing unfulfilled a full four years after it was first made at the Peacekeeping Ministerial hosted by Canada in Vancouver in December 2017.

For the full details of just how far Canadian support has fallen, in stark contrast to the commitments made by our government, see: Tracking the Promises: Canada’s Contributions to UN Peacekeeping by Dr. Walter Dorn (walterdorn.net, 8 Dec 2021).

In his “conclusion overall”, Walter Dorn states in part:

The Canadian government is not living up to its promises to re-engage in UN peacekeeping.  Evidence shows that it has gone backwards. In October 2021, it was near the lowest level of personnel contribution since the creation of the first peacekeeping force in 1956.

More Money for the “Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations” and other activities

In lieu of the vital human resources and equipment to actually carry out UN peacekeeping, Canada made a raft of spending promises including:

  • Increasing funding to the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund and providing it on a multi-year basis ($70M over 3 years);
  • Advancing gender equality and the implementation of the women, peace and security agenda through the extension and expansion of Canada’s flagship Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations;
  • Supporting international implementation of the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers, including their integration in UN peacekeeping policy, guidance and training; and,
  • Renewing support and funding for [international, not Canadian] peace operations training, notably for e-learning technologies and medical response.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

This pledging conference possibly came too close on the heels of the new Minister’s appointment to allow her to “stand up” to longstanding departmental reticence in fulfilling the unequivocal promises made by Canada to fully re-engage in UN peacekeeping.

But there will be no such excuse at the December 2022 pledging conference.  

Mali peace operation needs Canada more than ever

Way back in our March 13, 2020 guest blog by Walter Dorn, we called for Canada to contribute a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to MINUSMA:

This new Mali requirement is tailor-made for Canada. The Canadian Armed Forces have the capacity and the need is urgent. So, what are we waiting for?

And we further stated:

We also call on [then] Foreign Minister Champagne to outline new Canadian contributions to the non-military dimensions of MINUSMA, particularly dialogue efforts to engage insurgent forces on the ground in Central Mali.

Since then, we have highlighted ongoing efforts, often originating in local Malian dialogue processes, to engage extremists with country-focused grievances, not trans-national objectives.

Today, we consider a far more ambitious initiative, outlined in a new report by the International Crisis Group entitled: Mali: Enabling Dialogue with the Jihadist Coalition JNIM (10 Dec 2021), which they sum up as follows:

Authorities in Mali seem to be considering negotiations with Jamaat Nusratul Islam wal-Muslimin, the country’s largest Islamist insurgency. Pursuing talks will be a tall order, given the stakes and the group’s al-Qaeda connection. Both the government and the militants should begin with incremental steps.

In an introductory section, entitled Principle Findings, the Report sets out:

What’s new? 

The Malian government has expressed willingness to explore dialogue with Islamist insurgents, some of whom have sent reciprocal conciliatory signals. Previous talks among communal leaders, militants and militiamen yielded several local ceasefires that eased suffering in rural areas. Yet no one has taken steps to prepare high-level negotiations.

Why does it matter?

Thousands have died as Mali’s conflict grinds on. Both the army and the jihadists are taking increasingly heavy losses, but neither party appears capable of securing military victory. Ethnic violence is spiralling. Foreign partners are showing signs of exasperation with the country’s interlocking security and political crises.

What should be done?

The Malian government and those jihadists who have said they will talk should strengthen their commitment to dialogue. Ideally, to this end they would defuse resistance among elites and foreign partners, appoint negotiating teams and possibly even agree on a mediator.

Crisis group concludes its Executive Summary as follows:

Given the worsening instability wracking much of Mali, these steps are at least worth a try.

In the report itself, in the section on the stance of foreign partners to Malian government efforts at dialogue with extremist elements, Crisis Group outlines their varying positions.

Those opposed to dialogue

  • France, as the head of the Salehian counter-terrorism efforts, generally strongly opposes such dialogues and is in a position to disrupt them if it chooses.
  • Some U.S. diplomats oppose dialogue, including Ambassador Andrew Young, deputy to the commander for civil-military engagement at U.S. Africa Command (an extraordinarily bad subordination of civilian to military authority).

Those who are “keener” to talk

  • UN Secretary-General António Guterres has seemingly differentiated Islamic State groups (beyond the pale) from Al Qaeda affiliates like JNIM (worth a try) but he is constrained from open support for dialogue by their designation as terrorists by all 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council.
  • The African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security has taken a similarly pragmatic and nuanced approach.

Sahelian states should decide for themselves about dialogue

Many others, including Germany and Canada, have stated that the Sahelian states should decide for themselves about dialogue, and we strongly concur with this approach.

Whither Canada?

We call on the Minister of National Defence, on an urgent basis, to finally provide the long promised Quick Reaction Force to the Mali peace operation, MINUSMA.

We further call on the Minister of National Defence, in consultation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to instruct her department to prepare a plan for ensuring that Canada will come to the 2022 Peacekeeping Ministerial, not only having fulfilled all the unmet promises it has made to date – including our pledge at the 2016 London Ministerial to provide 600 military and 150 police – but also with new commitments in the area of technology, seconded personnel support in New York and UN peace operations leadership support, commensurate with our proud tradition of UN peacekeeping.

Finally, we call on the Minister of Foreign Affairs to provide financial and diplomatic support, in coordination with other external partners and in response to specific requests from the Mali transitional government, in relation to Malian government efforts to initiate dialogue with extremist elements willing to do so.


Summit convenor is not setting the best example

President Biden has fulfilled one of his campaign promises and launched his two-day virtual Summit for Democracy with 80 world leaders including, most controversially, Indian Prime Minister Modi and Israeli PM Naftali Bennet.

But, as Quincey Institute Non-Resident Fellow Stephen Walt points out:

Unfortunately, the United States is not in the best position to lead this effort right now.

United States continues to be rated as a “flawed democracy” according to the latest edition of the Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit. The annual survey rates the state of democracy across 167 countries based on five measures—electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. Regarding the USA, the report states:

The US … remains in the “flawed democracy” category, having fallen out of the “full democracy” division in 2016, owing to a further erosion of public trust in the country’s institutions—a development that preceded the election of Donald Trump as president that year, and helped to propel him to the presidency.

The Report goes on to say that America:

…exhibits a number of democratic deficits that could result in a further deterioration in its score and ranking in the near future.

These deficits include:

…extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties; deep dysfunction in the functioning of government; increasing threats to freedom of expression; and a degree of societal polarisation that makes consensus on any issue almost impossible to achieve.

Summit participants leave something to be desired

Walt also points out the list of Summit participants (which includes Canada) is arbitrary and inconsistent with Hungary excluded but an even lower ranked democracy, the Democratic Republic of Congo, included. He continues:

The inclusion of leaders, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, should raise eyebrows as well: Both were democratically elected but have been openly dismissive of key democratic norms.

More importantly, if the U.S. (and Canadian) commitment to defending democracy and human rights is to be taken seriously, then there is an urgent need to adjust their respective policies towards Saudi Arabia, and Israel, among others.

And most important of all is this key question that Stephen Walt poses:

But what if problem No. 1 is actually a big global problem like climate change or the pandemic? If so, then U.S. foreign policy’s main task is to foster cooperation with countries of every sort instead of dividing the world into “good” and “bad” states, such as those whose political systems are like the United States’ versus those that aren’t.

Walt concludes that, in any event, democracies can only prevail by demonstrating that they are still “fit for purpose” and able to deliver “real results” for their citizens, which in President Biden’s case means avoiding the global calamity of a one-term Presidency that paves the way for a return of Trump or “one of his clones”.

For the full article, see “Biden’s Democracy Summit Could Backfire (foreignpolicy.com, 8 Dec 2021).

The view from across the pond – Democracy Summit a divisive gamble.

Writing in the Guardian, diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour’s article asks whether Biden’s divisive democracy summit can deliver. He writes:

Unfocussed, unnecessarily divisive, an NGO merry go round [?] or an extended photo op have been some of the kinder trails.

He also picks up on one of Stephen Walt’s themes – the gap between the rhetoric in support of human rights and the reality of authoritarian allies, citing Daniel Larison of the Quincey Institute:

To the extent that ‘bad guys’ are ‘winning’ today, at least part of the explanation for it is that some of them have been given carte blanche by Washington to jail and kill their critics, destabilize other countries, and commit war crimes in reckless military interventions.

According to the White House website, the three thematic pillars of the Summit are:

…first, strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism; second, fighting corruption; and third, promoting respect for human rights.

The administration’s long-awaited and just-published anti-corruption policy will be presented and at least one foreign policy writer, Ben Judah, likes what he sees.

NEW: For a brilliant critique of the Summit from an entirely different angle, see: Biden is selling democracy short (, guest essay, nytimes.com) 9 Dec 2021. Here is the problem with the Summit that

It’s the framing of the contest between democracy and autocracy as one about which can deliver the goods of growth and stability.

He continues:

Such a framing encourages turning a blind eye to business-friendly far-right leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and plays into the hands of aspiring authoritarians in Western democracies, such as Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who envision running states like a business.

Most important, it sells democracy — an ideal based on freedom and equality — short.

We highly recommend reading the full essay which reminds us, just when we need it most, why democracy is, in Churchill’s oft-quoted phrase, “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

It frankly remains to be seen whether there will be enough solid ideas coming out of this meeting to counter its divisiveness at a time when global cooperation is more urgent than ever. As for human rights, we continue to believe that leading by example is the only credible approach.

We will provide an assessment of the outcome in our 17 December blog.


There were some very pleasant surprises in the announcement on 8 Dec 2021 by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the prestigious Arms Control Association, of this year’s nominees for Arms Control Person(s) of the year.

Two Canadian youth featured in the list as follows:

Avinashpall Singh and Rooj Ali, two high school students from Winnipeg, Canada, for their successful effort to win the city council’s unanimous support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), one of the dozens of such initiatives around the globe to encourage city governments to call for their national governments to join the TPNW.

We salute them!

Another nomination we wish to highlight reads:

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and the Government of Mexico for its lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors in a Massachusetts federal district court that takes a novel approach to combat illicit weapons trafficking.

The lawsuit alleges that several major firearms manufacturers and wholesalers “design, market, distribute, and sell guns in ways they know routinely arm the drug cartels in Mexico,” and that contributes to a decline of life expectancy in Mexico.

It said the named companies sell about 340,000 of an estimated half-million guns that illegally flow each year from “Massachusetts and other U.S. states to criminals south of the border.”

Canada too suffers from influx of illegal U.S. guns

This lawsuit should have special resonance for Canadians since we too suffer from an ongoing influx of illegal guns from the United States.

And for all those who keep insisting that the problem is only with “criminals” and not “law abiding gun owners”, see this 2018 CBC article about “straw purchasing” of guns in Alberta by lawfully registered owners for illegal resale:

A straw purchaser, someone who does not usually have a criminal record, has a valid Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) and has often obtained the extra requirement allowing them to buy restricted firearms.

While straw purchasers may not be involved in other criminal activity, the trafficked weapons are used in all types of crime.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

This is another reason why the legislation promised in the November Speech from the Throne to enact a mandatory buyback of banned assault-style weapon is so important.


December 16, 2021 webinar debate on U.S. and China

The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy is co-sponsoring a policy debate organized by the Quincy Institute between Professor John Mearsheimer and Professor David Kang. The debate question is: “Should the U.S. Seek to Contain China?”.

The debate is taking place on December 16 from 12-1 PM EST.

You can find more information and register here.

Please help us by spreading the word about this debate among your colleagues and friends. 

January 18, 2022 webinar will explore Economic Sanctions Report findings and implications

On 29 Nov 2021 the Rideau Institute launched a new, bilingual report by Professor Craig Martin, entitled Economic Sanctions Under International Law: A Guide for Canadian Policy, a co-publication with the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa and part of a co-project with the Group of 78.

On 18 January 2022 from 11:00 -12:30 pm EST, these three organizations will co-sponsor a webinar to explore with the author the Report’s important and timely findings.

Please keep watch for further details and registration information.


Photo Credit: Creative Commons Wikimedia (CSEC Headquarters)