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Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, seen here on Nov. 9, 2010, said he expects there will be lawsuits to try and seek reparations from China but he said governments such as Canada’s need do to their part to hold Beijing accountable.Pawel Dwulit/The Globe and Mail

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, a leading international champion of human rights, is blaming the Chinese government for the scale and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying he believes transmission of the novel coronavirus could have been dramatically reduced if China had acted earlier.

He also says the world would have been far more prepared to handle the outbreak if Chinese Communist Party officials had acted sooner, alleging government authorities covered up and hid early news of the outbreak.

Mr. Cotler is urging Canada to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese officials who mistreated or silenced whistleblowers, including medical staff and citizens, in the early days of the pandemic. The Sergei Magnitsky Law allows Canada to impose asset freezes and travel bans on human rights abusers around the world.

The former minister said he expects there will be lawsuits to try and seek reparations from China but he said governments such as Canada’s need do to their part to hold Beijing accountable.

“The Chinese Communist Party has to be held accountable through naming and shaming, in the court of public opinion, in actual courts of law through international tort actions, and through Magnitsky sanctions,” Mr. Cotler said in an interview.

“We can target those who have been responsible for the disappearances of the doctors, such as Dr. Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at the Central Hospital of Wuhan, who has now disappeared."

Dr. Fen shared her early concerns about the virus with colleagues and media. After Dr. Ai shared the information, eight doctors were arrested, including Li Wenliang, another whistleblower who later died of COVID-19.

Mr. Cotler said China kept information from the public at a crucial early period and cited a British study by the University of Southampton which suggested that 95 per cent of infections could have been avoided if China had acted three weeks earlier.

He calls what happened China’s “Chernobyl moment,” a reference to how authorities in the former Soviet Union covered up the full extent of a 1986 nuclear accident in Ukraine. The virus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

“For 40 days, President Xi Jinping’s Communist Party of China concealed, destroyed, falsified and fabricated information about the rampant spread of COVID-19 through its state-sanctioned massive surveillance and suppression of data; its misrepresentation of information; its silencing and criminalizing of its dissent; and its disappearance of its whistleblowers,” Mr. Cotler wrote along with Judith Abitan, executive director of the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Their column was published by the Times of Israel as well as by The Globe and Mail.

On Wednesday, Associated Press, citing internal documents, reported that China waited six days before warning publicly of a likely pandemic. The news agency said top Chinese officials secretly determined they were likely facing a pandemic from a novel coronavirus in mid-January, ordering preparations even as they played it down in public.

A law professor and human rights lawyer, Mr. Cotler has drawn acclaim for his work as counsel to prisoners of conscience worldwide, from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Soviet-era dissident Natan Sharansky. Now an elder statesman of the Liberal party, Mr. Cotler was a Montreal MP for nearly 16 years before stepping down in 2015.

The Chinese embassy in Canada, asked for comment, referred reporters to an April 9 statement it made that rejects allegations that China covered up the virus outbreak as efforts to tarnish the Asian country and slander the Chinese Communist Party. “China has acted in an open, transparent and highly responsible manner in timely releasing the related data. Without China’s timely release of information, how could the U.S. side issue a health warning for travelling to Wuhan on Jan. 7?” the embassy said.

John McKay, the Liberal MP who chairs the Commons public safety and national security committee, said he would like to probe China’s conduct in the early days of the outbreak. “I would dearly love to confront this,” he said.

“I think the definition of security is much broader than we have previously thought of it. ... Now we have to think in terms of pandemic security,” he said. “The failure on the part of a nation to properly disclose its pandemic numbers and its impact in effect becomes a security issue for us all.”

Mr. McKay added that the U.S. government’s lack of preparedness shouldn’t be overlooked.

Asked for comment on Mr. Cotler’s statements, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minster Francois-Philippe Champagne said Ottawa is working with China to “maintain co-operation and open dialogue” as the fight against COVID-19 continues. “As is always the case when the international community faces a common challenge, transparency and co-operation will continue to be critical to ensuring that we can confront this together,” said Adam Austen, deputy director of communications for Mr. Champagne.

Conservative MP Peter Kent said there is an abundance of evidence, including U.S. intelligence reports, of “cruel and deliberate suppression of the truth” by Beijing. Once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, the government should follow the recommendation of Mr. Cotler, he said.

Wenran Jiang, who teaches at the University of British Columbia’s school of public policy, said the accusations of a Chinese cover-up are being made without any proof.

“No doubt that there were serious missteps but there is little evidence to support a co-ordinated, systemic effort by the Chinese government to conceal or cover up the severity, the scope and the statistics related to COVID infection and death,” Prof. Jiang said.

“For those who spread racist, Sinophobic and new ‘yellow peril’ theories in the disguise of criticizing the Chinese government, they simply cannot accept a scenario that China under a one-party state system could have pulled off a relatively more successful battle against COVID-19 than many Western countries,” he added.

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