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A democratic country’s foreign relations are never more complicated than when they involve human rights. Higher ideals compete with realpolitik, resulting in actions that may leave the public wondering where their governments stand on otherwise black-and-white questions of right and wrong.

But even by the standards of that boilerplate caveat, the Trudeau government is sending confusing signals on several troubling foreign-policy issues.

On the one hand, Ottawa has sought broad international support in its fight against the Chinese government’s arbitrary detentions of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

The two Michaels have been held for two years on what are allegedly national security charges, but no one seriously believes their ordeal is anything more than retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou based on a U.S. extradition request.

Last month, the Trudeau government persuaded 58 countries and the European Union to sign a declaration against the use of arbitrary detention – a.k.a. hostage-taking – in state-to-state relations.

It was a show of international unity that left Chinese Communist Party spokespeople sputtering their usual incoherent claims about conspiracies against the Chinese people, a sure sign that it struck a nerve.

Leading a concerted global effort like this is Canada’s best hope of restraining autocracies that bully smaller countries and violate the human rights of their own citizens.

But it can’t be done without the support of like-minded nations. So it’s confusing that Ottawa has lately been slow to sanction China and Russia over other blatant human-rights abuses, even as our allies have acted.

Take China’s recent evisceration of the “one country, two systems” treaty it signed when it took over Hong Kong in 1997. Thanks to a national security law Beijing brought in last year, mass roundups of dissenters are becoming more frequent and the rule of law is being extinguished.

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Hong Kong officials, and the United Kingdom is considering it. But even though a Parliamentary committee urged the Trudeau government to act in February, Ottawa has sat on its hands.

Ottawa has been gripped by a similar inertia when it comes to China’s mass incarceration and forced relocation of the Xinjiang region’s Uyghur minority.

Last month, Parliament voted unanimously in favour of a non-binding motion declaring the Beijing government’s action to be genocide – with the entire Trudeau cabinet making a show of abstaining from the vote.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has since said China faces “possible consequences” from the international community. But his government has not joined with the U.S. in declaring the Uyghur atrocities a genocide, or in sanctioning some companies that operate in the region.

Yet another example of Ottawa’s paralysis is its refusal to join with its three key allies – the U.S., the U.K. and the EU – in imposing sanctions on Russian officials over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Mr. Navalny returned to Russia from Germany earlier this year, after recovering from a poisoning attempt carried out by Russia’s FSB security services. He was immediately arrested and is now behind bars in the grim-sounding Penal Colony No. 2, outside Moscow.

A spokesman for Global Affairs Canada has defended Ottawa’s inaction, saying Canada is “judicious” when it comes to using sanctions. Fair enough. But Canada was offered the chance to act as part of a multilateral response to Mr. Navalny’s arbitrary detention, and it still didn’t pull the trigger.

It’s not like Canada is always feckless. It has long-standing economic sanctions in place against Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. And its work on an international declaration against the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals was well targeted.

It is also important to remember that, when it comes to China, Beijing’s economic heft, and its capacity for retaliation against Canadian farmers and businesses, have to be taken into consideration.

Still, if Ottawa wants like-minded countries to support its initiatives, it has to reciprocate. Being judicious may lie at the heart of diplomacy, but so does knowing when to stand with your friends on difficult issues.

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