Why Canada should designate Wagner Group as a terrorist entity
Last week, I published this op-ed in the Globe and Mail on why Canada should designate Wagner as a terrorist entity. It’s an issue that I’ve been considering for some time. Yes, Wagner meets the definition. (Our definition is extremely loose, so many organizations, groups, or individuals meet the legal threshold.) But more importantly, the listing unlocks important legislation for holding Wagner to account. Now all we need to do is identify their assets and prove liability.
The United Kingdom is expected to designate the Wagner Group as a terrorist entity, after its Home Office stated last week it would be presenting a draft order to this effect to the British parliament. This follows the U.S. government’s designation of Wagner as a transnational criminal organization earlier this year, and discussions in the European Union about designating Wagner as well.
Canada should join forces with its allies and list Wagner as a terrorist organization – and there is certainly some support for this already. In January, the House of Commons unanimously voted to list Wagner as a terrorist entity. However, as I noted at the time, that vote was entirely symbolic and symptomatic of Canada’s unserious approach to Wagner. In the Canadian process, a recommendation to officially designate an organization as a terrorist entity has to be made to the Governor in Council by the Minister of Public Safety. The minister relies on information provided by CSIS or the RCMP, and to date, there is no public information available to suggest that either organization has provided supporting information for a listing. But beyond the listing, we should also go further with something more concrete: Canada should fund investigations to help victims’ families in bringing legal action against Wagner, and support international efforts against it as well.
Wagner, a Russian private military corporation that was led by Yevgeny Prigozhin until his presumed death last month, likely meets the definition of a terrorist entity under Canadian law. But it’s much less a group than it is a constellation of corporations, shell companies, and logistics firms that function as an extension of Russia’s foreign policy. Canada has sanctioned some of Wagner’s principal actors, but many of the corporations that make up the group remain unsanctioned, both here and abroad.
It might be hard for some people to conceive of Wagner as a terrorist entity because it doesn’t look or act like the groups we usually associate with that label, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But Wagner has more in common with these groups than not: it is a non-state actor and commits acts of violence for political, ideological or even, in some cases, religious reasons. It’s also worth remembering that other corporate entities, including not-for-profit organizations, have also been designated as terrorist organizations in Canada, so there is certainly precedent.
The designation would unlock an important piece of legislation: the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. This act would allow Canadians or permanent residents to bring an action to recover losses or damages for acts committed by Wagner, including against individuals or entities who facilitated Wagner activities through the provision of financial services or in other ways. Wagner has committed well-documented acts of violence against civilians in many countries – there are almost certainly Canadians and permanent residents who have suffered losses or damages from Wagner’s activities in Mali, Ukraine, and beyond.
By designating Wagner as a terrorist entity, Canada would effectively sanction all of the individuals and entities associated with the group now and in the future. This would not absolve Canada or its allies of the continuing need to identify Wagner assets globally, but it would provide legal cover for criminal prosecutions of anyone supporting the group.
To make this listing meaningful, and to augment Canada’s largely toothless sanctions against Wagner, the government should fund a small, independent investigative team to support potential action by Canadians against the group and contribute to international efforts to counter it. Such a team could investigate Wagner links in Canada and abroad, and support families of victims in preparing evidence and with legal proceedings against the group and associated entities. Even a small team of dedicated analysts and investigators could make a real difference on the international stage and to the victims of this violent group, particularly by identifying Wagner assets.
An official terrorist designation of Wagner would be in line with Canada’s continuing sanctions against the group, and would signal to our allies that we are willing to take every possible action to counter it. The funding of a small investigative team would further demonstrate that Canada is willing to actually commit resources to this fight, and not just produce largely symbolic packages of sanctions.
Wagner Group is an international scourge. It helps Russia evade sanctions, steals resources and wealth from other countries, increases violence wherever it deploys, commits atrocities against civilians, and reinforces the rule of autocratic governments. Listing Wagner as a terrorist entity in Canada won’t stop the group’s activities worldwide, but it will provide Canadians and permanent residents with legal recourse. And doing so would allow Canada to actually punch above its weight in international affairs, rather than just claiming to.