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Canada declines to Call China's treatment of Uyghurs genocide

29 June 2021 | By Brennan MacDonald

A masked demonstrator attends a protest denouncing China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, on July 5, 2018. Canadian senators on Tuesday voted down a motion to label China's treatment of the Uyghurs as a genocide. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Senators declined to label China's treatment of its Muslim minority Uyghur population as a genocide Tuesday evening.

A motion brought forward by Sen. Leo Housakos called on the Senate to recognize that a genocide is currently being carried out against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

Twenty-nine senators voted in favour of the motion, 33 senators voted against and 13 abstained.

The motion also called upon the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Olympic Games out of China should the Chinese government continue to perpetrate a "genocide."

The vote in the Senate follows on a similar vote in the House in February which saw a substantial majority of MPs — including most of the Liberals who participated — vote in favour of labelling China's treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and almost all of his cabinet colleagues were absent for that vote. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau was the only cabinet minister present. He abstained when it was his turn to vote, saying he did so "on behalf of the government of Canada."

Trudeau and his government have been reluctant to use the word genocide to describe China's treatment of the Uyghurs, arguing that more evidence from independent investigations is needed.

Canada has led an international effort calling on China to allow a UN investigative team "meaningful and unfettered access" to Xinjiang, the region of China where human rights violations allegedly are taking place.

During debate on the motion, Independent Senators Group Leader Sen. Yuen Pau Woo said Canada should avoid criticizing China over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims because our country has mistreated Indigenous peoples.

Echoing an argument made by Chinese officials at the UN last week, Woo said China's policy toward the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province is similar to the colonialism directed at Indigenous peoples in this country, and that condemning Beijing in harsh terms would be "gratuitous" and "simply an exercise in labelling."

Independent B.C. Sen. Yuen Pau Woo has criticized Canada for condemning China's treatment of its Uyghur minority. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Sen. Peter Boehm, who chairs the Senate foreign affairs committee, also opposed the motion, but for different reasons than those articulated by Woo.

Boehm argued that the House vote which labelled China's treatment of its Uyghur population a genocide had "no discernible impact" and that he believes strongly that foreign policy actions fall under the purview of the executive branch of government — the prime minister and cabinet.

"The complexities of a bilateral relationship that is fraught, as is the case between China and Canada today, cannot be boiled down into a few paragraphs of what passes for megaphone parliamentary diplomacy by copying a motion from the other place [House] of almost four months ago that had no discernible impact other than to spark an angry reaction from the Chinese government, which passage of this motion will probably do as well," said Boehm.

"Effective diplomacy must weigh words carefully, and parliamentary diplomacy or motions in this chamber, as I see them, should be no different. Foreign policy is not binary. It is all about the shades of grey. This motion, in my view, will not advance the importance of addressing the situation in western China, nor will it contribute to resolving or alleviating an already fraught and complex relationship that we now have."

Housakos said it was not about compelling China to do one thing or another.

"The people of Xinjiang and the Uyghur people require solidarity, like our allies around the world have expressed that solidarity — the Senate of the United States, the House of Commons of the U.K., the Parliament of Australia — and we should follow suit as a strong democracy and stand up in support of that solidarity," said Housakos during debate.

Sen. Leo Housakos has said Canada 'should follow suit' with other Western democracies in condemning China's actions. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The authoritarian state of China is committing these atrocities, these crimes against humanity, with impunity. They're arrogant in their blatant disregard for human life and human rights, and we must not allow it to go unchecked and unnamed for what it is."

China has detained an estimated one million to two million Uyghurs in what the government calls "re-education centres."

An independent legal analysis released earlier this year by the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a Washington-based think-tank concluded that China is committing an ongoing genocide against its Muslim minority population in Xinjiang.

The report concluded that the Chinese government's actions in Xinjiang have violated every single act prohibited by the United Nations Genocide Convention.

A number of Canadian human rights experts contributed to the report, including former cabinet ministers Lloyd Axworthy, Allan Rock and Irwin Cotler, as well as former ambassador to the UN Yves Fortier.

Following the release of this report, retired lieutenant general Roméo Dallaire, who previously served as a senator, urged Ottawa in March to act in response to the "genocide" being committed by the Chinese government.

Dallaire led the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide there.

©2021 CBC/Radio-Canada. All rights reserved.

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