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Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

Two decades ago, I had the privilege of carrying Ian Brownlie’s briefcase. The Oxford law professor was representing Amnesty International in the House of Lords. He argued in favour of upholding a Spanish extradition request for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, a request received by the London Metropolitan Police Service under the European Extradition Treaty.

The Pinochet case held the global media spotlight for months and established an important precedent: that former heads of state have no immunity from prosecution for serious international crimes. But it only ever happened because of two coincidences.

First, the senior lawyer at the British Foreign Office was apparently out of the country when the Metropolitan Police called to ask whether Pinochet had diplomatic immunity. The junior lawyer who took the call answered that narrow question correctly: Pinochet was not an accredited diplomat.

A more experienced international lawyer would have recognized another form of immunity – head of state immunity – was in play, and this much more difficult issue would be appealed all the way to the House of Lords. He would also have recognized that arresting a former head of state has political consequences, and bumped the decision up to the minister’s office.

Had that happened, Pinochet might have been discretely advised to fly home.

The second coincidence was that then-justice minister, Jack Straw, had been an anti-Pinochet activist in his youth. In the crucial few days after the arrest, he apparently hesitated about intervening. During the delay, the courts became involved, closing off all opportunity for political decision-making.

Only when all the legal appeals were heard, three doctors (handpicked by the Tony Blair government) declared Pinochet medically unfit to stand trial. It was a dubious finding: A vigorous looking Pinochet abandoned his wheelchair on the tarmac in Santiago.

The Blair government, however, was relieved to see Pinochet go. The arrest and months of media coverage were politically and economically damaging. London is both a global financial centre and a safe haven for autocrats. These two facets of the city are linked: many of the most desirable homes are foreign owned, and one is more likely to see a Russian oligarch or a Saudi prince in a fine London restaurant as a member of the British upper-class.

All of which bring us to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou on her arrival in Vancouver. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has admitted knowing about the extradition request several days in advance – in other words, before Ms. Meng boarded her flight to Canada. There was ample time for a discrete conversation with someone at Huawei Canada.

A similar suggestion by former deputy prime minister John Manley – that the Trudeau government missed an opportunity for “creative incompetence” – has been decried as an attack on the rule of law. However, there is nothing in the U.S.-Canada Extradition Treaty that prohibits warning an individual to stay beyond the reach of Canadian law.

The Chinese government knows this. Its reaction has been excessive – including detaining two Canadian citizens – but the anger will have been stoked by the knowledge Ms. Meng could have been warned.

The situation Mr. Trudeau found himself in was easier to escape than that which enveloped Messrs. Straw and Blair. Pinochet was already in Britain when the extradition request was received. Ms. Meng had not yet boarded her flight to Canada.

Moreover, Pinochet was accused of torture; Ms. Meng is accused of bank fraud. The Spanish judge seeking Pinochet’s extradition was upholding the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The U.S. judge seeking Ms. Meng’s extradition is enforcing U.S. sanctions against Iran, sanctions the United Nations has recommended be withdrawn.

The request for Ms. Meng’s extradition was never the issue over which the future of China-Canada relations should have been decided. Mr. Trudeau seeks to justify his inaction as respecting the rule of law, but he had an opening – and missed it.

Now that the courts are involved, the moment for political decision-making has past. Years of appeals and worsening China-Canada relations could lie ahead.

Yet with Ms. Meng free on bail, she may well skip the country. The idea that some security guards and a GPS anklet could prevent this from happening is naive at worst and hopeful at best. The Chinese government has hundreds of officials and agents in Vancouver, and dozens of airplanes and cargo ships depart for China each day.

Losing Ms. Meng might be the least-worst outcome. Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valour.

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