Canada creates coalition with allies to denounce arbitrary detentions amid fight to free Kovrig, Spavor


Canada and a coalition of 57 other countries offered vocal support Monday for a new international declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.

The new declaration was born out of a year of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, spearheaded by former foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne, and was the result of a campaign to free Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who spent their 798th day in Chinese prisons on Monday.

While ending the Canadian men’s imprisonment in China remains Canada’s top priority, the new declaration was meant to be a broad denunciation to also end the coercive practice in other countries, such as Russia, Iran and North Korea.

In an interview, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau wouldn’t name specific countries, saying the new Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations is “country-agnostic.” He said he wants to recruit more countries as signatories with the goal of ending the practice everywhere and to discourage other countries from taking it up.

But Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, was blunt about blaming China and the case of the “two Michaels” as a particularly egregious example.

“The Chinese government’s detentions of the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor epitomizes this despicable practice,” Roth told the 2-1/2-hour virtual launch of the initiative.

Roth said China has also subjected Australian citizens to similar tactics.

China became incensed as Canada built the coalition of countries to speak out on behalf of Kovrig and Spavor. China warned Canada of negative consequences if it continued.

British lawyer Amal Clooney said Monday that authoritarian regimes shroud the practice in the trappings of legal proceedings ‘to give a veneer of legitimacy to that act.’ (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Asked in an interview whether the declaration was intended as a message to China, Champagne said: “My message is to all those which have been arbitrarily detained in the world: That your liberty has been stolen, but your voice won’t be silenced. We stand by you, and we will fight for you at every step of the way.”

A spokesperson for China’s embassy on Monday evening expressed his country’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to the declaration. “The Canadian side’s attempt to pressure China by using ‘Megaphone Diplomacy’ or ganging up is totally futile and will only head towards a dead end.” 

China’s Global Times newspaper, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party, earlier denounced Canada for the new initiative by quoting unnamed “experts” who said it was an “ill-considered attack designed to provoke China” and would “rebound in the worst possible way.”

Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat working for the non-governmental International Crisis Group, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, were rounded up by Chinese authorities nine days after the RCMP arrested Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver International Airport in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Canada and its allies have denounced the subsequent national-security charges China laid against Kovrig and Spavor and called for their release from arbitrary detention — exhortations that have fallen on angry and deaf ears in Beijing.

British lawyer Amal Clooney, an international human rights activist who has represented imprisoned journalists and other victims of arbitrary political detention, said Monday that authoritarian regimes shroud the practice in the trappings of legal proceedings “to give a veneer of legitimacy to that act.”

Clooney said she hopes more countries would sign on and that the declaration would develop more “teeth” to punish offending political leaders with travel bans and financial penalties. In the interim, she said she was endorsing Canada’s initiative.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau says the new declaration is meant to be a broad denunciation to end the coercive practice of arbitrary detention in numerous other countries, such as Russia, Iran and North Korea. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“As the brilliant Canadian Supreme Court Justice [Rosalie] Abella once said, what matters is not what you stand for, but what you stand up for,” Clooney said.

Garneau said it is fine for countries to have differences of opinion in their diplomatic relations.

“But it is totally unacceptable if citizens from our country go to another country either to visit or to work there, that they have to live in fear that they could become a bargaining chip,” he said in an interview.

“It’s illegal. It doesn’t respect human rights.”

U.S. says it ‘wholeheartedly’ supports declaration 

Canada and its major allies in the G7, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network and countries on every continent support the new declaration, which is non-binding but aims to shame countries that engage in targeted detentions of foreign nationals to achieve a political end.

Instead, it aims to stigmatize arbitrary detention in the same vein as the Ottawa Treaty to ban anti-personnel mines.

“It is something that is intended to put pressure on countries that do practise arbitrary detention,” Garneau said, adding it is “very similar to when Canada decided back in the days of Lloyd Axworthy,” Canada’s then foreign minister, to spearhead the landmine treaty.

Champagne said the declaration was also modelled after NATO’s Article 5, which declares that an attack on one of its members constitutes an attack on all 30 member countries.

“The concept behind that is that if you were to take one of our citizens, we will, on a voluntary basis, come together to make sure that these issues do not remain bilateral.”

Champagne said the concept had its roots in discussions with British officials and won support among the countries in the Five Eyes, G7, European Union and across the world.

WATCH | Declaration against arbitrary detention is ‘country-agnostic,’ says foreign minister:

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau says a new international declaration is focused on denouncing the practice of arbitrary detention of foreign nationals, not specific countries. 2:48

“Canada’s Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention is an important moment of international leadership, bringing together like-minded allies to take a stand against this unacceptable practice,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was “wholeheartedly” endorsing the declaration and calling “on all like-minded countries to work together to pressure the nations that engage in such detentions to put an end to this practice, to release those detained under such conditions, and to respect the rule of law and human rights.”

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To break the impasse on the detention of Spavor and Kovrig, Canada has 3 options


Say a prayer for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Their chances of freedom are remote without collective action by the democracies.

What a mess. Had we known the implications of proceeding with the U.S. extradition request for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, we might well have shown the “creative incompetence” suggested by former foreign affairs minister John Manley by letting her complete her flight to Mexico.

Now, Messrs. Kovrig and Spavor face decades in Chinese prison. In China, rule of law is what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decides is in the best interest of the CCP, making them prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.

According to the Chinese foreign ministry, this case is based on “clear facts and solid evidence,” their stock phrase when results are already decided.

For months now the Canadian government has applied what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes as a “wide range of public and private measures,” Canada having developed a “certain expertise in what has worked to get Canadians home in very difficult circumstances.” Unfortunately, with no consular access for months, Messrs. Spavor and Kovrig are now in even more difficult circumstances.

Getting tough — or giving in

There is no easy way to secure the release of the two Michaels. Going forward, the Trudeau government has three broad options:

First, continue the current approach of responding to Chinese actions while encouraging allies to speak out. Mr. Trudeau has hardened his language, now “deploring” Chinese actions and refuting Chinese claims that Canada is “racist” or employing “double standards” in detaining Meng. But it would be diplomatic self-delusion to think this is having any effect on the Chinese.

Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, was detained in Vancouver in December 2018. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Second, do a swap or release Meng. A swap, as suggested early on by John Manley as well as some diplomats and officials, might have worked in the early stages, especially if the government had employed former prime minister Jean Chretien as envoy. But that time has probably passed.

The release of Meng using the authority of the justice minister — as now suggested by another former minister, a Supreme Court justice and a group of former parliamentarians and diplomats — would represent an about-face by the Canadian government. Having wrapped itself in the cloak of high principle on the “rule of law” and “independence of the judiciary,” such a move would be viewed as appeasement by critics and our allies. 

Despite his musings about using Meng to get a better trade deal with China, U.S. President Donald Trump may well decide to take retaliatory action against Canada. 

For the Chinese, it would be a vindication of “hostage diplomacy” and bullying. What assurances, moreover, do we have that the Chinese would immediately release the two Michaels?

A more co-ordinated approach

The third option is to show more muscle and respond asymmetrically to Chinese bullying. As a first step, revoke the visas for the children of senior officials studying in Canada and ask our Five Eyes partners to take similar action. The Chinese prize an English-language education. Xi Jinping’s daughter studied at Harvard; Xi himself did work and studied in Iowa

Canada hosts approximately 140,000 Chinese students — even if they cannot travel to Canada, they will want to continue their education remotely. You can be sure the students’ families would be upset. 

We should also raise the stakes by taking the cases of the two Michaels to the International Court of Justice, alleging torture (Kovrig’s wife told CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault that he’s been imprisoned without access to daylight for more than 560 days) and infringement of Mr. Kovrig’s diplomatic privileges (the Chinese interrogated him on his service at our embassy in Beijing, a violation of diplomatic norms).

WATCH | Michael Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, talks about her husband’s detention:

Michael Kovrig’s wife (though separated) Vina Nadjibulla speaks for the first time in an exclusive interview with Adrienne Arsenault about his detention, Canada’s diplomacy and her fears for the future. Nadjibulla also shares letters Kovrig has sent during his 560 days in a Chinese prison. 13:23

We should employ a team of human rights lawyers from NATO countries as well as Commonwealth and Francophonie nations to underline that this is a multilateral effort.

The Chinese may well respond with more sanctions on Canadian trade, in which case we should immediately appeal to the World Trade Organization, arguing that the Chinese are violating their trade obligations.

Holding China to account 

China has taken an a la carte approach to the rules-based system, especially in its abuse of trade privileges. We need to hold China to account. In addition to seeking redress through the WTO, we should also initiate an OECD-endorsed code of conduct for state-owned enterprises, modelled after provisions in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership.

The government should be looking at variations on all three options — the pros and cons involved in each — and ask the Canada-China parliamentary committee to canvas for more ideas.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson says the world’s democracies need to use their collective weight to hold China and its leader, Xi Jinping, right, to account. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

We have allies and friends. China doesn’t, really — they have clients, like North Korea. The democracies need to use their collective weight to sustain a system that has given the world relative peace and increased prosperity for 75 years .

When Pierre Trudeau established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China 50 years ago, it was an astute recognition that one-fifth of humanity could not be ignored.

No one is ignoring China anymore, but being big does not give China a free pass on human rights and international obligations. Its access to the rules-based global order allowed it to restore itself as the powerful Middle Kingdom. Unless the democracies stand together, China will just keep taking hostages and breaking the norms.



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