The Conservative motion on China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslims, which will be voted on in the House of Commons on Monday night, is not simply about whether the country is committing genocide. It’s also about whether the Government of Canada – or perhaps any other country outside of the United States – can or should say so.
And this is Canadian politics – and a debate between Liberals and Conservatives about the right approach to China.
Outside of China, it is widely believed that the Chinese regime has committed serious human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. A crackdown and allegations of abuse have been documented by media outlets including the New York Times and the TBEN.
Last fall, Canada was among a group of 39 countries that highlighted a series of “serious” concerns and called on China to allow the presence of independent inspectors.
The House of Commons international human rights subcommittee studied the situation and concluded in October that China’s actions constituted genocide, as defined by the genocide convention adopted by the United Nations in October. 1948.
Irwin Cotler, a former liberal justice minister, also believes that China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims amounts to genocide.
But so far only one country – the United States – has officially declared that China is in the process of committing genocide. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, declined to make the same statement when asked a month ago.
Only the United States has officially used the term
On Friday it was also reported by Foreign Policy magazine that the initial declaration of genocide by Donald Trump’s administration – which was made on January 19, a day before Joe Biden’s inauguration – was released despite doubts. State Department attorneys, who did. I don’t think there is enough evidence to say that China’s actions have reached the high bar necessary to declare genocide in progress.
This report does not mean that China is not committing genocide, but it somewhat weakens the argument that Canada should follow the American lead in making this statement at this time.
Trudeau is not wrong when he says, as he did last week, that the international community must be careful about the use of the term “genocide”. Occasional use of the word could reduce its meaning. But a process to make that decision still seems largely hypothetical – the Trudeau government has called for an independent investigation, but China is unlikely to ever agree to it.
The current debate in Canada cannot be dissociated from the months of back-and-forth between Conservatives and Liberals that preceded it. Especially since Erin O’Toole became leader of the Conservative Party, the Conservatives have taken a keen interest in China and have jumped at every opportunity to portray Trudeau’s approach to China as weak or naive.
Since Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were jailed in China, the Trudeau government has acted with caution. It has not, for example, ruled on the possibility for Huawei, the Chinese technology company, to participate in 5G networks in Canada.
At the same time, Trudeau has categorically rejected suggestions that his government should drop extradition proceedings against Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive whose arrest in Vancouver at the behest of the United States has led to China. to stop Kovrig and Spavor.
The problems of acting alone
When the Trudeau government has acted or talked about China in the past year, it has tended to do so in concert with other countries. In January, for example, Canada joined with the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom in condemning the arrests of Democratic activists in Hong Kong. In response to China’s actions against the Uyghurs, the Trudeau government has teamed up with the UK to ban the importation of Chinese goods made through forced labor.
Last week, the Trudeau government led a coalition of 58 countries to speak out against state-sponsored arbitrary detention. Although the statement did not directly mention China, the implication was clear.
Acting within a group has its merits. On its own, Canada’s power to change China is limited, and Canada’s allies may not appreciate that this country is ahead of them.
Acting alone also makes it possible to be chosen by China for retaliation – and Canada ultimately risks losing more in any individual dispute with a much larger and more economically powerful country that buys Canadian goods and sells affordable goods. .
The hesitation on the genocide a difficult position
A declaration of genocide would also raise questions about what this government is prepared to do to put an end to it.
Trudeau would no doubt like to act in concert on this issue as well – and one might ask how much effort he put into pushing for such action. But it seems unlikely that a large-scale multilateral effort will materialize before the Conservative motion is put to a vote on Monday evening.
And that seems likely to lead to a division among the Liberals – with some Liberal backbenchers voting for the motion, while cabinet votes against or abstains.
Trudeau’s insistence on being precise in the language of government may not be satisfactory. And maybe it would be difficult for a prime minister to publicly discuss the realpolitik that probably lurks beneath any foreign affairs issue.
But Trudeau and his government are now in constant danger of appearing insufficiently “tough” in the face of Chinese aggression. The Liberals may not be prepared to act on the Conservative Party’s schedule, but reluctance to face possible genocide is a difficult position to maintain and could age badly.
Approaching China’s “ belligerence ”
Ultimately, the Conservative motion is also a reminder that the big question of how to approach China is not going to go away any time soon. The predicament China poses was clearly framed by two questions posed during last week’s debate in the House.
The first question was posed by Green MP Elizabeth May, who asked Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong to “reflect” on concerns that “being more aggressive in our communications” could make it more difficult to secure release. by Kovrig and Spavor.
In response, Chong said his party was “very concerned” about Kovrig and Spavor, but he danced around the bottom of May’s question. He did not say these fears were unfounded, nor that the potential risk to Kovrig and Spavor’s well-being was worth taking.
But Chong said, “We firmly believe that being passive in the face of these threats is clearly not the way to respond to China’s belligerence.”
A few minutes later, Chong got up to ask his own question to Foreign Minister Marc Garneau: “Is the minister worried about this ambiguity in response to belligerence and threats from China …” send a message to China that these threats and this belligerence are working?
Garneau seemed to admit that it was, in fact, a very good question. “I very much appreciate my colleague’s question, which is complex and which I assure him that our government is seized of,” said the Minister.
The more China seems prepared to continue undeterred, the more convincing the arguments for a more aggressive approach will be – from Canada and from every other country in the world.