We must act’: Calls grow louder for Liberals to label China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide

On Monday, the House is expected to vote on a motion to officially adopt the position that a genocide is being carried out. If passed it is likely to infuriate China

The Liberal government is being urged to label crimes against the Uyghur people as genocide despite almost-certain backlash from the Chinese, following a motion introduced by the Tories in the House of Commons Thursday.

Opposition parties, a former diplomat and a former Liberal minister are among those calling for the government to officially adopt the position that a genocide is being carried out on Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China.

“It’s continuing as we speak. We need to have a sense of urgency about it and the political will to act,” Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal cabinet minister and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said in an interview.

On Monday, the House is expected to vote on the motion. If passed it is likely to infuriate China. On Thursday, China said Canada committed a “despicable and hypocritical act “by this week signing on to a declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign citizens for political purposes.

A House of Commons subcommittee concluded in October that the situation does constitute a genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention, citing testimony about mass detention of nearly two million individuals housed in what witnesses described as concentration camps and who are subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse. They are also forbidden from speaking their language and practising their religion, subject to mass surveillance, forced labour, and “inhuman measures” to reduce the population, the committee found.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while there are “tremendous human rights abuses” happening in Xinjiang, the word genocide is an “extremely loaded” one, and Canada should study whether the term applies in this case.

People protest at a Uyghur rally on February 5, 2019 in front of the US Mission to the United Nations.

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Bu Charles Burton, a former diplomat in Beijing and China and senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said in an interview that that Canada shouldn’t hold back in labeling what’s happening a genocide due to fear of retaliation from China. So far, Trudeau’s strategy of trying to “engender some degree of goodwill” in hopes that it could lead to the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians held in China for 800 days, has not worked, he said.

Burton argued Canada’s “passivity” when it comes to standing up to China “emboldens the Chinese regime to hold Kovrig and Spavor for a longer period of time.”

“If there were costs associated with China’s violations of the international rules-based order and diplomacy and trade extracted by Canada, this could improve our bargaining position” in terms of the two Michaels, he said.
He cautioned Canadians should be careful about going to China because of the likelihood of China retaliating further against Canadian citizens in the country. But that doesn’t mean Canada “should stand idly by” and not respond vigorously to genocidal policies.

Canada is significantly less dependent on trade with China than allies like Australia or New Zealand, amounting to four per cent of external trade, and most of that is in goods that have a global market, Burton said.

“The ability of the Chinese government to engage in serious trade retaliation against Canada is, objectively speaking, rather limited and because of the close to 3-1 trade imbalance between Canada and China, any reciprocal trade action would be more damaging to Chinese interests than Canadian interests,” he said.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler: “We need to have a sense of urgency about it and the political will to act.” PHOTO BY JEAN LEVAC/POSTMEDIA/FILE

Cotler said if Canada turns to international allies, then the issue becomes something China can’t only retaliate against Canada for. Canada could call for a United Nations-appointed mechanism to have access to Xinjiang and make the determination that genocide is occurring, or turn to the International Criminal Court. Canada can also join with other democratic countries in imposing Magnitsky sanctions, which are targeted against individuals, not countries, Cotler said.

“Then China cannot oppose it both because of the broad-based alliance that would be doing it and because of the individualization of the nature of the accountability that is being sought,” he said.

“There are a series of initiatives that I think would be enhanced and advanced by this determination. But the most important thing is that we would be conveying this sense of moral outrage and moral urgency and necessary political will to act,” he said.

Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa law professor who specializes in constitutional, human rights and international law, also said the government could take targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, against the key architects of the genocide, including the governor of Xinjiang and the regional party chief. “When you’re dealing with some of these very top people… that reaches right to the presidency,” he said. “That will be discussed at the highest levels of China.”

Mendes noted United States President Joe Biden is set to host a summit of the world’s democratic countries, and said it “absolutely should be the number one priority on the part of Canada in its near term international diplomacy “ to work with fellow democracies to push back against the influence of autocratic countries around the world.

Cotler also pointed to the upcoming Biden summit, noting Biden’s foreign policy will be very different from former president Donald Trump’s, and with Biden’s administration “we’ll see an alignment with other democracies and this will make it more possible for them to engage effectively” in a way that hasn’t been possible in recent years.

Another area where Canada would need international cooperation to put adequate pressure on the Chinese government is the upcoming winter Olympics. Conservative leader Erin O’Toole earlier this week called for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved out of Beijing.
Mendes said Canada going it alone with a boycott or similar measure is unlikely to be effective. “The Chinese will hardly pay attention to that. How do we when then enter into a coalition with other countries?”

Cotler said going ahead with holding the Olympics in China would amount to rewarding China for its conduct.

“If the 1936 Olympics were then called the games of shame, I think these would be the games of shame as well,” he said.