In an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, Marc Garneau said Canada is “deeply preoccupied by the very credible reports of gross human rights violations that are occurring in Xinjiang.”
On Monday, the federal government announced it was imposing sanctions on four Chinese officials and one entity in relation to what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “gross and systemic human rights violations in the Xinjiang region.”
The sanctions come amid multiple reports, studies and news articles detailing the horrific mistreatment and abuse China’s minority Uyghur population has been subjected to in the region.
On Saturday, China imposed retaliatory sanctions on Canadian Member of Parliament Michael Chong who serves as the vice-chair of parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE).
The country also announced sanctions on the FAAE’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights, which has eight members and this month presented a report concluding that atrocities had been committed in Xinjiang that constitute as crimes against humanity and genocide.
Asked why it took so long to impose the sanctions on China, Garneau said the federal government has been “working with like-minded democratic countries on a coordinated response.”
“You’ll notice, for example, that on the 15th of February, Canada led an initiative called the Declaration on Arbitrary Detention in state-to-state relations,” he said. “And we assembled 58 countries for that declaration, pointing out how it was totally unacceptable for a country to arbitrarily detain the citizens of another country on trumped-up charges.”
He also pointed to the 22 countries who stood in solidarity with Canada outside of a Chinese courthouse on Monday during the trial of Michael Kovrig — one of two Canadians who have been detained in China on espionage charges for more than two years.
“And, of course, the countries that joined us in imposing the sanctions on China for their treatment of the workers is another example,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to build on that coordinated multilateral approach to China and to other countries such as Russia.”
Canada has not declared the actions against the Uyghurs a genocide, despite calls to do so from opposition parties and advocacy groups. Garneau said, though, that the government is “looking at that very seriously” and is “working with our allies on that.”
“It is a very big decision,” he said. “We take all allegations of genocide very seriously. But the important point here to remember is that we have for the first time sent a very clear signal to China that we are deeply preoccupied by the very credible reports of gross human rights violations that are occurring in Xinjiang.”
Garneau said the government is “going to continue to watch this very carefully.”
“We are continuing to evaluate different measures to get the message across to China that its treatment of the Uyghurs is totally unacceptable and deeply preoccupying,” he said.
During the interview, Garneau was also asked why Canada’s Ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, was recalled to Canada as the trials of Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who are both on trial in China over espionage charges, began.
The men were detained in China in 2018, shortly after Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou was detained by authorities in British Columbia on an extradition charge from the United States.
The actions taken against the two Michaels are widely viewed as retaliatory for Meng’s arrest.
Garneau said recalling ambassadors for discussions face-to-face in Canada is “very standard procedure.”
“This is exactly what has happened in this particular case of Dominic Barton,” he said. “It happened before we knew about the trials of the two Michaels last week, and it is to bring him back so that we can sit down with him and have a discussion about how we move forward with China.”
Garneau said Barton is a “key player,” when it comes to Canada’s dealings with China.
“We have some very serious things to discuss with the ambassador about our evolving relationship with China,” he said.
“And it’s important to have him in the same room with us so that we can have those very frank and open discussions without worrying about any kind of security as the situation evolves in China.”
The minister said Canada was “very ably represented” by the charges d’affaires, Jim Nicol, at the trials of the two detained men.
Both Kovrig and Spavor’s trials ended without verdict.
Asked if Canadians should avoid travelling to or doing business in China over the threat of arbitrary detainment, Garneau said “there are no restrictions at the moment of that nature.”
“But I think that every individual who decides that they’re going to go over to China has to make their own assessment at this point,” he said.
-With files from Global News’ Rachel Gilmore and Reuters