Canada and China were involved in a war of words at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Monday over the detention of their citizens who were released over the weekend in an apparent prisoner swap.
Speaking on the closing day of the 76th session of the UNGA in New York, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau thanked international allies for their support in the case of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who returned to Canada after nearly three years in Chinese detention.
The announcement of their release by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday night came hours after a deferred prosecution agreement in the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was accused of committing fraud in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran.
On Friday, a B.C. Supreme Court judge withdrew the U.S. extradition charge against her, allowing her to return home to China.
Garneau told the UNGA that Canada applied both Canadian and international law in response to the U.S. request for extradition of Meng, and that the “two Michaels,” as they are known, paid a “heavy price” for Canada’s commitment to the rule of law.
“We continue to oppose the way these two citizens were treated,” Garneau said, adding that Canada “will never forget this experience.”
China has long maintained that there is no connection between Meng’s case and that of Spavor and Kovrig, who were arrested over espionage charges just days after the Huawei executive’s apprehension.
Using the right to reply at the UNGA, a representative for China’s UN mission, speaking shortly after Garneau’s address, said Meng’s case is “completely different” to the Canadian men.
He accused the U.S. and Canada of arbitrarily detaining Meng, categorizing it as a “complete political incident and frame-up.”
“We hope that Canada can face up to the facts squarely, correct their mistakes and draw lessons from what happened so that they could not make further mistakes,” the Chinese diplomat added.
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Exercising its own right to reply, a representative for Canada’s UN mission said the “two Michaels” did not benefit from a similar degree of transparency, respect, due process or judicial independence as Meng did.
Meng was kept under house arrest in one of her Vancouver mansions, while the two Canadians faced harsh conditions in Chinese detention — where they had limited access to the outside world and their families.
“We continue to oppose the way these Canadian citizens were treated and we will continue to speak out against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations,” the Canadian diplomat added.
The Chinese representative fired back a final time, saying China could not accept what the Canadian representative said.
“Facts cannot be denied,” he said.
Kovrig and Spavor’s safe return to Canada on Saturday, where they were greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Calgary, marked an end to a tense international stand-off that has strained ties between Ottawa and Beijing.
In another twist earlier on Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Spavor and Kovrig were released on bail for health reasons.
China released the two Canadians on bail after a “diagnosis by professional medical institutions, and with the guarantee of the Canadian ambassador to China,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing.
In an interview with the Global News on Sunday, Garneau said the federal government’s “eyes are wide open” when it comes to China.
“It’s an eyes-wide-open policy with respect to (the Chinese government),” Garneau told Mercedes Stephenson during an episode of Global News’ The West Block. He added that the arbitrary detention of the “two Michaels” had ground Canada’s relationship with China to a halt.
However, the country’s relationship with China is continually evolving, said Garneau, and the two will still “co-exist.”
“We will compete. We will cooperate in areas where we need to cooperate, such as climate change, and we will challenge China, whether it’s on human rights or whether it’s on arbitrary detention, when appropriate,” he said.
— with files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun, The Canadian Press and Associated Press