National Post (Latest Edition)
Nation shaming won’t help Michaels
Canada has not led a major diplomatic initiative on the international stage since the landmine ban treaty in the late 1990s.
But on Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau hosted the unveiling of the Declaration of Arbitrary Detention in State-to-state Relations, an agreement endorsed by 58 states and the European Union aimed at ending what Garneau called the “unacceptable practice” of nations detaining foreign nationals for diplomatic gain. The virtual announcement included statements by British human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The agreement is officially agnostic when it comes to target states. But it emerged from the travels of Garneau’s predecessor, François-philippe Champagne, as he tried to secure support from like-minded countries in the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Canadian citizens who have been held in detention for more than two years in China. The Canadian government believes the two men have been held in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in late 2018 — a charge the Chinese deny.
The declaration is not binding and there are no punitive consequences for offending states but Garneau said he believes it is meaningful.
“This is an incredibly important moment, when all these countries agree that the practice of arbitrary detention is immoral and illegal. It is something that I think will grow in terms of impact,” he said.
Champagne said the idea was to give voice to those whose liberty had been stolen. He said his inspiration was NATO’S Article 5, under which an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all.
but that analogy breaks down on closer inspection — Article 5 results in punitive action against an aggressor. The only consequence for a state guilty of arbitrary detention is reputational damage.
When the idea was at the discussion stages, Canada’s former ambassador in beijing, Guy Saint-jacques, said action that triggered automatic sanctions from all signatory nations might force states like China to change the way they do business.
Legislation proposed recently by the Canadian Coalition against Terror and the Macdonald-laurier Institute would permit the government to impose sanctions on property owned in this country and block admissibility to Canada by foreign nationals or states involved in hostage taking.
but naming and shaming is unlikely to have the same coercive impact. The goal of building a taboo around arbitrary detention relies on countries like China and Iran being moved by the diplomacy of shame. The evidence suggests embarrassing China in particular is counterproductive, instead arousing indignation born of national pride.
Still, the declaration will not be welcomed by China, North Korea or Iran, the principal targets.
Getting 58 countries to agree on the time of day is a feat, far less signing up to implicit criticism of Chinese policy.
It is unlikely to warm Canada-china relations, just weeks after this country banned the importation of goods produced using forced labour in China’s Xinjiang province. That measure led the Chinese to demand Canada “stop interfering in internal affairs.”
Justin Trudeau has previously rejected retaliatory action as counter-productive.
His government’s policy could fairly be said to balance the mistreatment of minorities in China, the erosion of free speech in Hong Kong and the detention of the two Michaels, with a business relationship that sees Canada export $23 billion of goods and host 160,000 Chinese students pre-pandemic. Canada’s man in beijing, dominic barton, has been enthusiastic about restoring relations and doing more business in China.
Garneau said he is “fine-tuning” the policy left by Champagne.
“Our relationship is complex and evolving,” he said. “It is a relationship where there are areas where we will co-operate; areas where we will compete; areas where we will co-exist; and, areas where we will challenge.”
Garneau said Canada has to be engaged with beijing. “China will, possibly by the end of this decade, be the largest economy on the planet, with one fifth of the people. It is important to be engaged, but it is important both countries understand each other. That’s what we are seeking to do because we think that can lead to a constructive relationship, one in which we are honest with each other.”
Garneau is by nature diplomatic but talk of frankness and integrity on the part of the Chinese Communist Party leaves him open to criticisms of credulity.
Xi Jinping’s China believes in its destiny to rise and is intent on insuring socialism with Chinese characteristics assumes a dominant position over capitalism.
The new foreign affairs minister’s rhetoric does not suggest he truly believes we are engaged in a values war with a relentless competitor.
Meanwhile, two Canadians sit in Chinese jails, pawns in a global diplomatic chess game.
For all its good intentions, the declaration is unlikely to win the release of Kovrig and Spavor. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that talks to resolve the criminal charges against Meng had stalled and were now dormant. Hopes had been raised that, if the u.s. dropped the extradition case and allowed Meng to go home, the Chinese might release the two Canadian detainees.
Garneau would not be drawn on the state of those discussions. “We are exploring all avenues,” he said. “I’ve got a piece of paper on my desk that reminds me about my number one priority.”
The intent of internationalizing outrage is noble. but it is unlikely to help the two Michaels.