Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave some insight Tuesday into his reluctance to call China’s treatment of its Uighur minority a genocide, even as federal Conservatives ramp up Olympic-sized pressure on the government to make the declaration.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Trudeau said the international community takes the term “very, very seriously” and must ensure it is only used when it is “clearly and properly justified.” Anything less, he suggested, threatens weakening the term used to describe other past atrocities.
“That’s why it is a word that is extremely loaded and is certainly something that we should be looking at in the case of the Uighurs,” he said, adding Canada is among the countries still examining alleged human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang province.
“We will continue to work with the international community and move forward on making the right determinations based on facts and evidence as appropriate,” he said.
Watch: O’Toole joins calls to move next Olympics out of China
China has been accused of using so-called “re-education camps” to indoctrinate the mostly-Muslim Uighur minority group into mainstream Chinese society and of having used forced birth-control measures, including sterilzation, to limit Uighur births. More than one million Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in the camps, according to UN experts, with former detainees saying they faced forced labour practices, systematic rape, abuse, and torture.
Beijing has denied any wrongdoing, maintaining it is running a voluntary employment and language-training program.
Last fall, a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee, which heard directly from camp survivors, declared China’s actions constitute genocide as laid out in the Genocide Convention. China dismissed the conclusion as “baseless.”
The convention notes that, beyond killing specific members of a group, genocide includes “imposing measures intended to prevent births” with the intent to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, also asked the UN Human Rights Council in November to investigate whether China is committing genocide against the Uighurs. China’s government blasted Rae’s comments as “ridiculous.”
The prime minister was asked Tuesday if he was reluctant to accuse China of genocide because of what it could mean for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained in China who are approaching 800 days behind bars. Their arrests in December 2018 were blasted as arbitrary by the Canadian government and widely seen as retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Trudeau again said his “primary concern” was not to apply the “extremely loaded term” to situations that don’t meet the internationally recognized criteria for genocide.
“There is no question that there have been tremendous human rights abuses reported, coming out of Xinjiang, and we are extremely concerned with that, and have highlighted our concerns many times,” he said.
“But when it comes to the application of the very specific word ‘genocide,’ we simply need to ensure that all of the Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed in the processes before a determination like that is made.”
The prime minister conceded other organizations and countries have reached that conclusion about China, but said Canada was still “leaning in carefully to make sure that we can make the right declaration moving forward.”
On its last full day of Donald Trump’s administration last month, the U.S. State department declared China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity.
The topic was raised later in question period by Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, who asked the government to recognize a genocide is taking place in China.
Garneau suggests more investigations needed
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau responded by saying the Canadian government has adopted a “very principled approach” when addressing any violation of human rights.
“We are gravely preoccupied by the allegations of mistreatment of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang area and we are looking at all of the available evidence,” Garneau said.
He suggested further investigation is required before a determination of genocide can be reached.
“In the meantime, we have urged China to allow experts into the country to examine the situation so that they can see for themselves what is actually being alleged and committed.”
Trudeau’s hesitancy with the label also made headlines in 2019 with the release of the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
Though the report concluded that Indigenous women and girls who disappeared or were murdered were victims of genocide, Trudeau did not use the term during his speech to mark the inquiry’s end.
A day later, however, Trudeau told reporters people were getting “wrapped up in debates” over the term. “We accept the finding that this was genocide, and we will move forward to end this ongoing national tragedy,” he said at the time.
O’Toole: Canada should be pushing to relocate 2022 Beijing Olympics
Earlier Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told reporters it is clear “China is committing genocide against Uighur Muslims.” The Tory leader also said China “established a police state in Hong Kong” and has held Kovrig and Spavor hostage without cause or due process.
Such actions prove Beijing should not be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics that are less than a year away, the Tory leader said, adding the time had come for Canada to urge the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the Games.
O’Toole did not offer a suggestion for where the Olympics should be relocated, but called on Trudeau to take the lead working with Canada’s closest allies to relocate the Games out of China. Doing so would remind allies of the important role Canada plays in standing up for human rights and dignity, he said.
The Tory leader said the Olympic charter notes the movement is about, among other things, celebrating respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
“I think Canadians would agree that it would violate universal fundamental ethical principles to participate in an Olympic Games hosted by a country that is committing a genoicde against part of its own population,” he said. “The Olympic Games and the athletes who compete in them inspire each generation, and they must continue to provide such inspiration, but not in China, in the shadow of a genocide.”
“While there’s a genocide taking place, we should not be turning a blind eye to that and acting as if nothing is happening.”
O’Toole said the IOC and partner countries should look at nations that have the capacity to host, noting there are countries that have either recently hosted Winter Games or are in the preparation stage.
Asked if Canadian athletes should compete if the Games stay in Beijing, O’Toole said he would not want to see athletes denied their chance to perform and inspire. But if it’s not possible to relocate and if there is “no change in conduct by the state of China,” then Canada must examine whether its athletes should participate, he said.
“While there’s a genocide taking place, we should not be turning a blind eye to that and acting as if nothing is happening,” he said.
O’Toole’s comments echo words from Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who last week said Canada should support moving the 2022 Olympics because of China’s “genocidal campaign.” Paul also suggested Canada should offer to host or co-host with the United States, using existing infrastructure from past events.
“If an ongoing genocide is not reason enough to relocate a sporting event, then my question is, what is?” Paul said.
Thirteen MPs from all five major parties, including Liberals Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Sameer Zuberi and Ken Hardie, also signed on to a letter urging the IOC to move the Games.
Liberal MP Adam van Koeverdan, a four-time Olympic medallist, suggested Canada’s athletes shouldn’t be treated as political chess pieces.
Canada joined a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Though human rights concerns and discriminatory anti-LGBTQ legislation spurred talk of a possible boycott of the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, Canadian athletes ultimately competed.
Trudeau suggested Tuesday that he would not be taking a leading role trying to move the Olympics from Beijing.
“We know that the International Olympic Committee, the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and others are looking very closely at this issue and we will certainly continue to follow carefully,” he said.
In an op-ed published this month in The Globe and Mail, David Shoemaker, the CEO and secretary-general of the Canadian Olympic Committee, and Karen O’Neill, the CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, argued a boycott wouldn’t work and would only punish athletes and those looking to be inspired.
“Faced with only two options – go or don’t go – our approach is to be present and join the conversation,” they wrote. “We believe we can amplify voices and use people-to-people connections to effect change, regardless of how aspirational or difficult that might seem at times.”
With files from The Canadian Press and a file from Zi-Ann Lum