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Politics Ambassador John McCallum’s comments undermine Ottawa’s argument for rule of law

What was John McCallum thinking?

The Canadian government has persistently pushed back at Chinese pressure over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou by insisting this is a rule-of-law country where the government can’t influence judges.

But then Mr. McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, waded in by suggesting that Ms. Meng, who is sought for extradition by U.S. authorities, has some good arguments to fight her extradition in the courts. He said it’s up to a judge, but also that Ms. Meng’s extradition to the United States “would not be a happy outcome.”

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Forget that Mr. McCallum is not entirely wrong that Ms. Meng has arguments to make – although the ambassador did stumble over some facts.

It’s never wise for a senior government official to comment in detail on the strengths of a case going before a court. It’s foolish to talk about a preference for a judge’s ruling. But it’s worse when that undercuts weeks of painstaking explanation to Beijing that the government cannot interfere in the course of justice.

Mr. McCallum knows as well as anyone that the problem is not just that the Chinese don’t care about the independence of the Canadian judiciary – they don’t believe it really exists. Chinese leaders can direct court outcomes and they believe Canada’s leaders have the same power.

In that context, Mr. McCallum’s comments are likely to be viewed by Beijing as a wink-wink suggestion Ottawa might find a way to send the Huawei executive home.

The behind-the-scenes explanation is that Mr. McCallum wasn’t supposed to say that – it wasn’t in the script and won’t be repeated. That’s bad.

There’s another, more conspiratorial suggestion, though, which a few in the diplomatic community believe: that Mr. McCallum might have been trying to send a non-official signal to China, to lower tensions.

So, what was Mr. McCallum thinking?

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There’s a lot of reason to believe it was a screw-up. Mr. McCallum, a former cabinet minister under three prime ministers, is a very intelligent man who occasionally says dumb things. And some suggest that if the Canadian government was trying to send a signal to the Chinese, he probably wouldn’t do it at a meeting with Chinese-language reporters in Markham, Ont.

And then there is the fact that Mr. McCallum’s list of Ms. Meng’s “quite good arguments” got the facts wrong, suggesting it wasn’t a practised message.

He noted Ms. Meng might argue that the case is politicized, because U.S. President Donald Trump suggested he could intervene, and that the case is extraterritorial, because the events in question did not happen on U.S. territory. But Mr. McCallum also said one argument is that the case revolves around U.S. sanctions against Iran that Canada did not sign onto – and that’s incorrect.

Canada does not apply the same Iran sanctions as the Trump administration, but at the time of the events in Ms. Meng’s case, said to between 2009 and 2014, Canada applied similar sanctions as the U.S. In any event, it appears the U.S. intends to charge Ms. Meng with fraud, alleging she misrepresented Huawei’s links to companies doing business with Iran, although the U.S. has not yet filed a formal extradition request.

But there is some suspicion that Mr. McCallum was trying sending a signal that Canada would like Ms. Meng to be sent home – but in a not-really-official, not-quite-saying-it kind of way – to lower the temperature of the dispute.

Earlier in the week, Canada’s ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, told The Globe and Mail that Canada had voiced anger and resentment to the United States at being caught in the middle, with its citizens suffering for U.S. actions. By itself, that’s not out of line with Canada’s veiled complaints about Mr. Trump’s suggestion he could intervene. But then Mr. McCallum, who just attended a meeting of the federal cabinet last week, speculated that the United States and China could make a deal that would see Washington withdraw the request to extradite Ms. Meng, and hopefully ensure the release of two Canadians detained in China.

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Just talking about deal-making sends a different message from the government’s repeated assertions that this case will stick to legal process. Suggesting that Canada doesn’t want Ms. Meng to be extradited undermines the assertions the government cannot intervene.

If it is a screw-up – an ambassador outlining the process and accidentally speaking outside the lines – that can be remedied. You’d expect Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, or his government, to disavow the comments or clarify. But they’re still hanging out there. That’s a dangerous form of confusion. It can help skeptics around the world doubt Canada’s pious assertions of justice. It can encourage Beijing, or others, to think Canada can be pressured to bend. It’s not wise to leave the world wondering what Canada was thinking.

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