Alex Neve is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
Earlier this week, before a cabinet shuffle that ended his time as Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, François-Philippe Champagne joined International Trade Minister Mary Ng in announcing “measures related to the human-rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” in China.
He noted that the Trudeau government was “gravely concerned with evidence and reports of human-rights violations … involving members of the Uyghur ethnic minority and other minorities.”
Is this significant? It is. Is it enough? It is not. How could it be, in the face of staggering human-rights atrocities?
Given the scale of the massive crisis faced by Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities in China, it is vital to see Canadian government action. It’s certainly a courageous step given the Chinese government’s propensity for retaliation. The challenge now will be to build on this momentum.
After all, the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights – chaired by a government MP, with other government MPs as members – considers what is happening to the Uyghurs to be a genocide. Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, also notes that aspects of the situation meet the terms of the Genocide Convention.
Canada has joined other governments at the United Nations in issuing unprecedented joint statements calling out China and insisting that outside investigators be granted access to Xinjiang, a request that continues to be denied. Reports from UN experts, investigative journalists and human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, paint a harrowing picture of an unrelenting crackdown against Uyghurs over many decades that has intensified dramatically over the past four years.
Particularly heart-wrenching are accounts from the Uyghur community, in China and abroad, including across Canada, of people’s own terrifying experiences and fear for loved ones who have disappeared into mass detention facilities. Uyghur-Canadian Huseyin Celil has been unjustly imprisoned in China since 2006, for instance; reports from his family in Xinjiang – the only means for his wife and four sons in Ontario to hear about his fate – ceased several years ago. The worry, of course, is that they were swept up in the crackdown.
Among the extensive litany of human-rights violations, concerns about forced labour programs for Uyghurs are prominent. Numerous investigative reports point to cotton production as a notable example. And so it makes sense that Canada’s measures concentrate on forced labour.
But what is not immediately obvious is that the actions announced this week aren’t all new. The prohibition on the importation into Canada of goods produced through forced labour, for example, was imposed last July, required by our updated trade deal with the United States and Mexico. Similarly, export controls on Canadian goods and technology – to guard against contributing to serious human-rights violations against Uyghurs – accompanied Canada’s accession to the UN Arms Trade Treaty in 2019.
So what is new? Canadian companies will be required to adhere to a Xinjiang Integrity Declaration if they wish to benefit from the government’s Trade Commissioner Service, which seems like a rather small consequence in the face of a grave human-rights concern. By comparison, the British government, which announced similar measures, contemplates fining transgressing companies.
The rest of Canada’s announcement is largely about sharing information, including an official government “advisory on doing business” in the region, enhanced advice for companies from the Trade Commissioner Service, convening discussions and pursuing further analysis. All are useful initiatives, but none envision penalties.
It is good that this is being pursued in co-ordination with other countries, which is always key when seeking to address concerns in China. With that in mind, however, Canada should move quickly to keep up with more forceful measures of some of our closest allies. A hard-hitting Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has been overwhelmingly adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives and is expected to be passed as well by the Senate. Already, the U.S. government has banned cotton imports originating from Xinjiang.
There are other options open to Canada, too. The government continues to be reticent about imposing sanctions against culpable Chinese government officials through what is commonly known as the Magnitsky Act. That has been called for repeatedly, including by a large number of MPs and senators last year.
No one would pretend it is easy or straightforward to take on China’s abysmal human-rights record. The government deserves to be commended for taking this step. But the effort must go much further.
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