The entire federal cabinet – save the foreign affairs minister – was absent Monday when the House of Commons unanimously voted to characterize the Chinese government’s treatment of its Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the northwest part of China as “genocide.”
In the absence of the prime minister and all his cabinet colleagues, Marc Garneau, the foreign minister, stood and declared, “I abstain on behalf of the Government of Canada.”
The vote was on a nonbinding resolution brought forward by the Conservative party and, ultimately, was supported by all parties, receiving a unanimous vote by those members in the house and participating remotely. An amendment, brought by the Bloc Quebecois, also passed, calling on the International Olympic Committee to move the games scheduled for Beijing in 2022 unless the genocide stops.
According to international law, genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The United States, at the tail end of the Trump regime, became the first country to name China’s behaviour genocide.
The Chinese government is perpetrating mass incarceration of millions of Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs in northwestern China, operating concentration camps, separating families, committing forced sterilization, using slave labour and employing indoctrination apparently aimed at breaking the victims’ adherence to Islam and promoting obeisance to the communist regime.
The Chinese state barely disguises their intent, acknowledging that they are operating “re-education camps” or “counter-extremism centres.” An Australian study last year posited that there are 380 such facilities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where most of the 12 million Uighurs live. The area produces a large proportion of the world’s cotton and the BBC has reported that an estimated 500,000 people are being employed in forced labour picking cotton. Some who have escaped the camps report physical and mental torture, including mass rape and sexual abuse.
An argument could – indeed should – be made that the use of the term “genocide” must be applied carefully in order to avoid diminishing the significance of the language. We have seen the misuse of the term applied to Israel. But there is a great difference between using caution out of respect for the magnitude of the allegation and avoiding the term out of some political expediency or fear of diplomatic retaliation.
Whether what is happening in China right now fits the definition of genocide as we understand it in contexts like the Holocaust, Darfur, Rwanda or Bosnia is not immaterial. But there can be no question that what is happening are crimes against humanity on a massive, blood-chilling scale. Censure of the most extraordinary sort is absolutely justified.
Of course, discretion plays a role. In every decision and position the government takes relating to foreign parties, there are multiple domestic, diplomatic and practical considerations. No country’s foreign policy is pristine or unsullied by what we might consider pure self-interest or unprincipled motives. Fears of repercussions are legitimate.
China is a bully. In response to Canada’s rightful arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request, the regime effectively kidnapped two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have now been incarcerated for more than 800 days.
As we have said in the context of Canada’s support for Israel, elected officials should exercise immense caution in employing foreign policy as a wedge issue. Certainly there are legitimate differences of opinion among parties and individuals on various international topics.
Objectively, O’Toole and his party did the right thing. They were accompanied by MPs from all parties, including Liberal backbenchers. We would hope that the motion and the unanimous support is a symptom of a genuine Canadian commitment to fighting evil in the world. However, it is difficult not to see some partisan calculation at play. O’Toole and his party have been effective and vocal in raising the Uighur issue (as well as other Chinese government atrocities and human rights abuses) for some time. By contrast, the Trudeau government has appeared to waffle, hemming and hawing over the definition of genocide and appearing reticent to offend the Chinese regime; their approach to China in general has been scattershot and incoherent.
It is within the realm of reason that the Conservatives saw a chance to embarrass and divide the Liberal government and took it. But the bigger issue is, even if the Conservatives were motivated by some hope of political gain, the Liberal government could have muted any such benefit by simply doing the right thing – as Liberal MPs and those of other parties did.
O’Toole, after the vote, decried an absence of leadership. Fair enough.
If the Canadian government has a reason to not characterize Chinese actions as genocide, we’d like to hear them. By simply refusing to show up, the Trudeau government did not take a stand on one of the crucial global issues of the day.
When a people is facing genocide, the very least the victims and Canadian citizens should expect is for Canada’s government to speak up. Too many times in history we have seen the consequences of silence.