Former diplomats warn global relations crumbling as Canadians languish in Chinese prison
|Toronto Star 19 Mar 2019 at 21:07|
VANCOUVER—As a pair of Canadians mark their 100th day detained by the Chinese government in an undisclosed location, former diplomats are warning that Western countries can no longer afford to ignore the human-rights abuses of a country set to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful economy.
Diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor were arrested in China on Dec. 10 in a move observers and diplomats have called retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou .
Protesters hold photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are being detained by China, outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on March 6, as Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou appears in court. (Jason Redmond / AFP/Getty Images)
Beijing has officially denied the link. However, media statements from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials suggest a different story. In a December editorial in The Globe and Mail, Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye responded to public criticism over Kovrig and Spavor’s detentions by raising the issue of Meng’s arrest — a clear indication Beijing’s behaviour is motivated by politics, not rule of law, a political analyst told the Star at the time.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has always used the tactic of “disappearing” individuals for political ends, said David Mulroney, who served as Canadian ambassador to China between 2009 and 2012.
The “covert roundup and detention” of over a million members of the Uyghur minority population in the Western region of Xinjiang is the “latest shocking example,” he said. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has rejected those accusations, saying they had “no factual basis.”
What the detentions of Kovrig and Spavor point to is an increasingly “aggressive and blatant” detention of foreigners by the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping, Mulroney added.
“This is a real and growing threat,” said Mulroney, now a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations — a United Nations document outlining the rules of diplomatic law — provides protection for any diplomat and her or his family from any form of arrest or detention while travelling in a foreign state.
Diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig was arrested in China on Dec. 10 in a move observers and diplomats have called retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. (AFP/Getty Images / CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy)
Although Kovrig may arguably have been protected from arrest under the Convention, he was on leave from his diplomatic post at the time of his detention. He had travelled to China for his work with foreign affairs think tank International Crisis Group on a regular passport and business visa.
In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly chastised Beijing for failing to respect the diplomatic immunity to which he said Kovrig is entitled under the Convention. In a regular press briefing just days later, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shot back that any Canadian suggesting such a thing made themselves “a laughingstock.”
“Michael Kovrig is not entitled to diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by any measure. He is not currently a diplomat,” Hua, the Chinese spokesperson, told reporters at a Jan. 14 regular press briefing.
A Monday article in the South China Morning Post, quoting anonymous sources, paints a picture of a diplomatic community scrambling to insulate themselves from the same fate and terrified to travel to China on anything aside from a diplomatic passport and on government business.
Former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing and China expert Charles Burton, now a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad, said such fears are not misplaced.
Burton said Beijing is all too willing to “flaunt international protocols and agreements,” as evidenced in part by the CCP’s refusal to observe a ruling from The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration rebuking the country’s establishment of military facilities in the international waters of the South China Sea.
“As incidents demonstrating China’s increasing disrespect for the norms of international diplomacy continue to mount up, the West will have no choice but to disengage from the PRC in global affairs,” he said.
“This will inevitably impact on trade and investment as well as political relations.”
Swedish human-rights worker Peter Dahlin was detained in China for weeks. In a December interview with the Star, he gave an insiders’ account of the harsh conditions under which he believes Kovrig and Spavor are being kept: alone in a constantly-lit, padded room, guarded by two men they aren’t allowed to talk to and subjected to interrogations and sleep deprivation.
In a March 13 Hong Kong Free Press article, Dahlin painted a grim picture of the future for citizens of Western countries whose governments Beijing wishes to punish for any number of reasons.
“Soon the U.K., France, and eventually Germany will be added to the list of nations whose citizens will be disappeared (by Beijing), not because of any legal reasons, but as tools of foreign policy,” he wrote.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canadian ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said the former detainee’s troubling prediction is not lost on Western governments.
“The detention of Messrs. Kovrig and Spavor by China has had a negative impact among Western and Asian countries as they understood that this could happen to their citizens as well,” Saint-Jacques, now a senior fellow at the China Institute of the University of Alberta, told the Star in an email.
“This explains why Canada has been able to gather international support from European and Asian countries.”
A chorus of protests from foreign officials, scholars, former diplomats and academics has been unleashed in the wake of Kovrig and Spavor’s detentions. Officials from the U.S., U.K., Germany, the EU, Australia and NATO as well as from numerous independent think tanks and foreign policy institutions have all urged fair treatment for the pair, with some calling for their immediate release.
Beijing’s deafness to these entreaties “will lead to a reassessment of countries’ engagement with China and (of) how to ensure that it adheres to international norms and standards in the future,” Saint-Jacques said.
“I expect that it will take the form of increased co-ordination in a number of areas to prevent such behaviour in the future but also to ensure that the multilateral system is not undermined further.”
In the meantime, Kovrig and Spavor remain imprisoned without access to lawyers and now stand accused of committing espionage on Chinese soil. According to Dahlin’s account, the likeliest scenario is that the men are being kept in a compound near a small airport used by the Beijing branch of the Ministry of State Security, where their only sense of place might come from the sound of planes above their cells.
And according to Burton, there is little sign of an end to their bleak saga. Despite international pressure, Burton it is clear Beijing continues to view the pair as a bargaining chip in its bid for Meng’s release.
“Tragically,” he said, “Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig could be heading for life imprisonment in China, or even for one or both a sentence of death, depending on the outcome of Meng Wanzhou’s extradition process.”