On Monday, Canada became the second country to recognize China’s actions against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province as a genocide. In doing so, the Canadian Parliament became the first legislative body in the world to take this stand in a 266 to zero vote.
Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet, however, abstained from voting. Trudeau has argued an independent investigation by a body such as the United Nations is required.
His decision did not come as a surprise. Trudeau had spoken out against bringing the motion to a vote, arguing that genocide is an “extremely loaded” term.
Genocide is indeed not a word that should be used lightly. However, for the past few years, media reports, witness accounts, academics, and photos have provided evidence that genocide is taking place. While the Uyghurs are not being outrightly massacred, as one often imagines genocide, Beijing has set in motion a strategy “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” as defined by the Genocide Convention.
The crimes committed by Chinese authorities include forced abortion and sterilization, destruction of livelihood and culture, torture, arbitrary detention, forced labour, political re-education, and separation of families. These constitute genocide under the Convention.
While Conservative leader Erin O’Toole declared that Trudeau’s decision to abstain is a “terrible sign of leadership,” the criticism is both easy and political. Political, because the Conservatives have been using any issue related to China to portray the Trudeau government as weak. Easy, because realpolitik tells us that angering the Chinese government can have considerable consequences, especially if Canada goes at it alone.
Beijing has vehemently denied allegations of human rights violations, including by buying Facebook ads that dismiss them as Western “disinformation.” When the motion was introduced last week, the Chinese Ambassador to Canada warned that the declaration would constitute interference in China’s domestic affairs and stated “There’s nothing like genocide happening in Xinjiang at all.”
On Monday evening, he criticized the vote as an “anti-China farce” and a “shameful act” and criticized Canada for its treatment of Indigenous peoples.
By now, Canada has gotten used to China’s threats and condemnation. Sino-Canadian relations have been frigid for several years, particularly as a result of the arbitrary detention of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, which Canada has described as “hostage diplomacy.”
Ottawa also drew Beijing’s wrath when it criticized human rights abuses to the Uyghurs and Beijing’s national security law and mass arrests in Hong Kong. Monday’s determination will only escalate tensions.
What happens next?
First, it is important to state that Canada’s decision to recognize the genocide of the Uyghurs sends a strong message to the Uyghur community. On Monday, many people on social media were quick to say that the determination means little as long as the Canadian government does not take concrete action. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
For the past three years, my colleagues and I at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies have been meeting with members of Uyghur community in Canada. They have told us that they lost contact with family members who live in Xinjiang Province and warned us that children were being separated from their parents. When we tried to raise awareness about growing human rights violations by inviting the president of the World Uyghur Congress to a conference in Montreal in 2019, the Chinese Consulate of Montreal tried to silence us, arguing that we were hosting a “terrorist.”
The Uyghur community reacted strongly to Canada’s recognition of the genocide. The president of the Uyghur World Congress, Mehmet Tohti, declared on Twitter that “many Uyghurs changed their profile photo to Canada Flag and celebrated Feb 22 as a day for Uyghur Canada friendship, as of this year and years to come.”
Nonetheless, Monday’s determination is non-binding, and the Liberals are unlikely to take concrete action unless an UN-mandated mission to the region takes place. Despite China’s invitation to the High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to visit Xinjiang, full access to the region is doubtful.
Diplomacy and non-confrontational approaches clearly haven’t worked. There are multilateral and unilateral actions that Canada can take to make sure that the acknowledgement of genocide does not remain empty words. First, as demanded in the motion, the government could lobby the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing. It would constitute a reputational and financial hit for China.
Second, as suggested by Senators and MPs, Ottawa can impose sanctions on Chinese officials using the Magnitsky Law, which includes financial and travel restrictions on individuals responsible for or complicit in violating human rights. Canada has used the legislation to sanction human rights abusers in Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, Canada has already taken the important step to ban the imports of goods suspected of being made using forced labour in Xinjiang, citing grave concerns “with evidence and reports of human rights violations.”
Canada cannot confront China alone. As international criticism and pressure grow, there is an opportunity for like-minded democracies to form an alliance, especially with the arrival of the new Biden administration. As Beijing tries to reshape international norms, now is the time to give a new impetus to our declining multilateralism and human rights.
Marie Lamensch is the project coordinator at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. Her research and policy interests are foreign affairs and international security, mass atrocity prevention, violent extremism, as well as human rights and new technologies.