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The Senate

Motion Concerning Genocide of Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims by the People's Republic of China--Debate

June 28, 2021

Honourable senators, I am glad for the opportunity to speak to this motion, which is controversial for many reasons and has generated strong emotions. Unlike in the House of Commons, we are having a real debate about it, which I believe does honour to the chamber of sober second thought. There are, of course, different points of view, including some that are uncomfortable to many, but let’s embrace the diversity of opinion rather than seek to shout it down.

The motion has two parts: the first has to do with the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the second, which effectively calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. I will focus on the former, since the Olympics issue is a relatively straightforward question about how far we should allow politics to influence sporting events. My view, in short, is not very far at all.

On the thornier issue of Xinjiang, let me begin by saying that how you vote on the motion says very little about your feelings on the plight of Uighurs. Of course, there are those who want your vote on this motion to be a test of who you are and what you stand for. I empathize with those of you who feel you must vote for the motion in order to not be typecast in a certain way.

That is why it is not easy for me to make this speech, which is likely to generate a torrent of reflexive denunciations and crude labelling from my “fan club.” I reject that kind of reductive logic and the insidious insinuations that come with it. It is an unfortunate reflection of our times that I even have to say this at the start of a speech in the Senate of Canada, but I am exploring with all of you what I believe is in the best interests of Canadians and of Canada. I hope we can make the same assumption about other Canadians — especially Chinese Canadians — who share some version of my views but who do not have the privilege and protections that I enjoy. There is a worrying trend in this country where discussions about China and Canada-China relations are framed in Manichean terms, and where Canadians with connections to China are received with discomfort, suspicion or outright hostility.

The crux of the motion is the labelling of Chinese actions against Uighurs in Xinjiang as a genocide. I would note that we have already passed a motion calling on the government to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and that motion does not include the genocide label. You already know my views on Magnitsky-style motions, but insofar as this chamber wants to demonstrate that “action” needs to be taken, a motion advocating such has already been adopted. The current motion does not add any actionable measure specific to the Uighur situation in China; it is simply an exercise in labelling.

Colleagues, we have heard various accounts about what is happening in Xinjiang, most of which is from American and Australian sources. But the best assemblage of information on Xinjiang is right here in Canada, at the University of British Columbia, by way of what’s called the Xinjiang Documentation Project. It is extremely important for all of us to have as accurate and as comprehensive a fact base as possible, especially in forming a view on matters far removed from Canada. If you are interested in the issue of extrajudicial detention of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, the UBC portal is a great place to start. The URL can be found in the text of my speech that will soon be posted on my Senate website.

The UBC team does not tell us if the legal definition of genocide has been met, but I believe that there is no version of what is happening in Xinjiang that most Canadians would be comfortable with. Even if we accept the Chinese government’s explanation that their treatment of Uighurs is for the benefit of the Uighur community, that the motivation is to counter terrorist acts, that the camps are basically vocational training centres and that the demolition of mosques is in the name of infrastructure development and modernization, I think it is safe to say that most Canadians would still be appalled. That is why I understand that for our fellow parliamentarians in the other place, and for many of you, it might seem impossible to contemplate not voting for the motion.

The fact that there is no version of what is happening in Xinjiang which Canadians can be comfortable with is as much a comment on us as it is a comment on China. We have a view of individual liberties that is embodied in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that we hold sacred and which would not today allow our government to make mass arrests on the suspicion of terrorism, force whole communities to attend schools for what we perceive to be for their benefit, sterilize women so that they did not burden themselves and society with so-called “inferior” children, or relocate entire villages in order to give them modern amenities — except that we did all of those things, and we did them throughout our short history as a country, most appallingly to Indigenous peoples, but also to recent immigrants and minority groups who were deemed undesirable, untrustworthy or just un-Canadian.

The fact that China does not share our view of individual freedoms or, indeed, our interpretation of freedoms based on the Charter is not a basis on which to lecture the Chinese on how they should govern themselves. I suspect many Chinese nationals, or other nationals for that matter, will be aghast to learn that it is on the basis of our Charter that disabled people with an irremediable condition and whose death is not reasonably foreseeable can be accorded a medically induced death, to cite just one example of Canadian exceptionalism.

If the point of this motion is to remind us that the P.R.C. is an illiberal, authoritarian state, I have a news flash for you: The P.R.C. has been an illiberal authoritarian state since its founding over 70 years ago. Without minimizing any of the repressive — perhaps even genocidal — acts against Uighurs in recent years, the accusations against the Chinese government — forced relocation, demolition of traditional homes and ways of living, coercive birth control, mandatory re-education, suppression of individual rights — are as old as the P.R.C. itself. Why do you think the Chinese government recently announced a policy to encourage families to have three children? Because they are trying to reverse the disastrous and often brutal one-child policy of previous decades that was forced on the entire population, especially Han Chinese.

Perhaps the motivation behind this motion and other motions like this one is to point out that the P.R.C. is, indeed, an illiberal and authoritarian state and that after 70 years we should do something about it. This is, of course, the subtext of the geopolitical contest between the United States and China that will define at least the first half of this century and which poses grave danger to the world. It is not just that the U.S. and China are competing for markets as well as military and technological supremacy. There is more than a hint that the contest is between what some would deem as legitimate and illegitimate systems of government, with China clearly in the latter category. That notion is behind much of the current debate on Canada-China relations, which is increasingly framed as one in which we should pursue relations with “good” Chinese people but not the “bad” Chinese state.

The argument that the Chinese government is illegitimate is typically based on the observation that it is not democratic. You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that in the recent poll on the state of democracy around the world, 70% of Chinese respondents agreed with the proposition that their country is democratic, compared to 65% in Canada, 60% in India and only 50% in the United States. On a different question about the degree of democracy, respondents in China expressed greater satisfaction with the status quo in their country than did respondents in Canada or the United States.

Now, if you are suspicious about the source of this poll, I can tell you that it is from an organization known as the Alliance of Democracies, which has as its mission the promotion of democracy and free markets, and it is led by the former Danish prime minister and Secretary General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

How is this possible, you say, when China does not even have elections for its government? Well, as political theorists will remind us, there are two kinds of state legitimacy. There is input legitimacy and there is output legitimacy. In the West we tend to place much more emphasis on input legitimacy, which is essentially about how we select our representatives. Hence our focus, rightly so, on free and fair elections. But in practice citizens also confer legitimacy to the governments based on the results that are produced by their government — that is to say on outputs.

Now like most of you, I was brought up in the orthodoxy that input democracy through free and fair elections will, in the long run, outperform because citizens can always vote out a government that has not performed and in that way seek to improve outputs by changing the inputs. But we are learning the hard way that democratic elections and changes in government over decades have not consistently produced better outcomes for citizens in many industrialized economies. Sure, there has been economic growth, but income and wealth inequality have increased, with stagnating median incomes and growing societal tension. That is the reason for what is now widely observed to be the problem of a democratic deficit in some Western industrialized economies and the rise of populist leaders who have illiberal instincts, but nevertheless command much support through democratic elections.

Let me be clear: I much prefer the vagaries of democratic choice to the certainty of authoritarian rule, but we cannot be smug about our preference for input legitimacy as the only way to validate state power. We also cannot deny that the Chinese state has its own claim to a kind of legitimacy, even if we don’t like it.

What does political theory have to do with the current motion? The premise of the motion is that we have a special right to criticize an illiberal and authoritarian China because that government is illegitimate. Think a bit about gross human-rights violations by states that are ostensibly liberal and democratic, and the fact that there are no motions making similar criticisms of them, and I think you will see what I mean.

You might say, “Yes, I agree with Senator Woo’s observation. We should indeed adopt motions criticizing states that are responsible for violations of human rights in all instances, regardless of regime type.” But, colleagues, is this really what you want the Senate of Canada to be about — a body that passes judgment on the rest of the world with two- or three-paragraph motions that cannot possibly capture the complexity of a given situation?

There is a reason why Parliament has historically left matters of foreign affairs to the executive as part of the Royal Prerogative. The management of relations with other countries, especially great powers, is exceedingly complex and does not lend itself to one-off pronouncements that are based on the desire to perform without the responsibility to manage. Yet, it seems the Senate is increasingly activist on foreign-policy issues, with at least a dozen bills and motions directing the government to do this or do that on what is always a very narrow issue in a broader bilateral or multilateral relationship.

It isn’t just that these actions are almost always gratuitous; it is also that they can be damaging to Canadian interests because of the distraction caused by the motion or the action, and the ability for our counterparts to use those distractions, sometimes cynically, to advance their own bargaining positions.

In this respect, I agree with Senator Harder that this motion and others like it are not helpful in resolving some of the most pressing problems in the Canada-China relationship today, especially efforts to secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who continue to languish in Chinese prisons.

Does this mean we say nothing about the plight of Uighurs? No. We must find ways to dialogue with the Chinese on the situation in Xinjiang. However, I do not believe that the performance of a Senate labelling motion is the right way to do it.

Let me share with you a version of how I broached this issue in my conversations with interlocutors. I had one such interaction very recently. To our Chinese friends, I say, “We are hearing very troubling news about the situation facing Uighurs in Xinjiang — that their religious and cultural rights are being repressed; that they have been sent to training centres against their will; that their leaders have been subjected to intimidation and abuse; and that their very existence as a people is being threatened. We understand that your actions are motivated by the fight against terrorism; a desire to provide employable skills for minorities; the need to modernize infrastructure and upgrade living standards; and a wish for greater national cohesion. We understand because our country made these same claims in our treatment of Indigenous people in Canada and of minority groups that have come to this country as immigrants. We had a system of residential schools for Indigenous children for over 140 years that sought to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into mainstream society, ostensibly for their own good. It did not work.”

“More than that, we have come to understand that the policy of the assimilation of Indigenous peoples was not only ineffective, it was also morally wrong. The legacy of residential schools is one of individual and community trauma that will take generations to heal.”

“We convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to try and better understand what went wrong and how we can fix those wrongs. The findings were released in 2015, and we are still in the early stages of responding to all its recommendations.”

To my Chinese friends, I say, “Many Canadians cannot listen to the news about Uighurs — even your own government’s version of what is going on in Xinjiang — without reflecting on how terribly wrong our own experiment with Indigenous children in residential schools went.”

In making those reflections, Canadians are saying to Chinese friends that we don’t want them to make the same mistakes. We do so not because we have a superior moral position, not because we have the answers to the problems they are trying to solve and not because we want to embarrass China. We do it because of the pain we feel over what happened in our own country and for what we can learn from each other in not making such mistakes again.

Each country functions within its unique historical, cultural and political context, but we believe that there are universal values to be upheld and common lessons that can be shared across borders. When it comes to the treatment of Indigenous peoples and minorities, repression and forced assimilation only lead to longer-term problems for society at large.

Canadians are still wrestling with those longer-term problems in our society, and it is impossible for us not to express concern over what we hear about Xinjiang. We do it because we recognize our common humanity with Uighurs and all peoples in China, and out of a desire for China to succeed as a nation of many ethnicities.

Honourable colleagues, this is how I approach the issue. I accept that, for many of you, what happens today or happened decades ago in Canada is irrelevant to the question of whether we should label the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang as a genocide. I respect that point of view, but I hope you will also consider that a labelling motion, such as this one, is not the only way to respond to legitimate and genuinely felt concerns of Canadians about the news coming out of western China.

The fact that there is an alternative should give you a reason to vote against this motion. If you do vote against the motion, it is not because you are unconcerned about the human rights in Xinjiang but because you want to do something about it.

Thank you.

Hon. Leo Housakos [ + ]

I would like to exercise my right to final reply on the motion, if there are no questions.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

We still have senators to speak on debate.

Hon. Peter M. Boehm [ + ]

Honourable senators, I am rising to speak on Motion 79.

I appreciate the speeches that have been given on this motion. I don’t question the spirit of great concern in which it was brought forward, but with my intervention this evening, I wish to express my opposition to it.

It is clear that the world is very concerned about the situation confronting the Uighur and Turkic Muslims population in the Xinjiang province of China. The reports are troubling, from what is being told to us by individuals and, of course, the recent Amnesty International report, in particular. That said, whether and how this fits under the 1948 Genocide Convention is currently being discussed in international councils and among governments.

Like many of you, I have a very lively interest in human rights. In my previous life, I was quite engaged in the multilateral sphere in developing international instruments and attempting to exert pressure.

Colleagues, you will have seen the news out of Geneva at the UN Commission on Human Rights last week, where Canada has been joined by its friends and allies in calling for an on-site and unfettered investigation by the UN of human rights abuses in Xinjiang province. China and its allies — those paragons of human rights, Russia, Iran, the DPRK and Syria among them — have called for an investigation of Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples. This is a false equivalency, of course. In Canada, and despite our troubled history, we have had inquiries, apologies, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and are going through a period of both reflection and investigation that will be ongoing.

Our current and previous prime ministers have addressed this topic. Former Prime Minister Harper provided an apology on residential schools in June 2008, as have our UN ambassadors, Bob Rae in New York and Leslie Norton in Geneva, in terms of addressing the issue.

Prime Minister Trudeau dedicated his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2017 to the sole subject of reconciliation. UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, James Anaya, issued a report in 2014. I can’t talk about the cabinet discussion then, but I was present for it. It was handled seriously.

I have spoken before on foreign policy-type motions introduced in the Senate. They are usually short and to the point, as this one is. They can call upon a foreign government directly to take action on a certain issue or modify a certain behaviour. They can seek to press the Government of Canada to act on an issue of concern by engaging directly with or taking measures against a foreign government, often in consultation with allies. Motion 79 does that.

But most of all, motions on foreign policy issues are designed to draw attention. This one does, as did the same motion in the other place on February 22. There was a lot of media and social media pizzazz afterwards, but it had no discernible impact.

I believe strongly that foreign policy action falls under the Royal Prerogative. Foreign policy-type motions have been challenged in the Senate on points of order, and I can think of one in 2007 asking China to engage in direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama on the future of Tibet. Then-Speaker Noël Kinsella ruled this motion could go ahead. Not much happened after that.

Under the Royal Prerogative, the executive branch, cabinet, can take sovereign decisions on foreign policy based on the best information and analysis from Canada’s network of missions around the world, the public service, and intelligence services, including from our allies. We are simply not privy to that information in this chamber. Sometimes I wish I still was.

The motion in the other place was approved unanimously on February 22 with our Minister of Foreign Affairs registering an abstention on the part of the government. Nonetheless, to me, it appears that in the interval, the will of the House has been taken on by the government in its diplomatic actions, both bilaterally with China and multilaterally, particularly with the situation in Xinjiang and its Uighur population.

I would like to mention a few motions from other Parliaments in the world and how they have been handled.

In the Netherlands, there was a reference that a “genocide on the Uighur minority is occurring in China.” But there is no reference to the government of China. This motion is much more specific.

In Belgium, there was a reference to “a serious risk of genocide.”

In the United States, Senate Resolution 131 has recognized what previous and current administrations have said regarding genocide — in particular, former Secretary of State Pompeo and current Secretary of State Blinken — but in operative parts of the resolution, condemns the atrocities committed against the Uighur and Turkic groups; urges the administration to speak publicly about the atrocities; urges an appeal to the UN Secretary General to take a more active stand; references human rights as a consideration point for all U.S. agencies engaged in bilateral relations with China; urges an investigation through the UN system of human rights abuses and urges the collection of evidence and the transfer of evidence to a competent court; and urges U.S. partners and allies to undertake similar strategies to build an international investigation if Chinese authorities do not comply with the UN investigation.

The will of our House was evident as well in that Canada is working with international partners and is leading an effort at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to demand that China allow “meaningful and unfettered access” to investigate so-called credible reports of widespread human rights violations against China’s Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. This unfettered access is to include the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet. Many countries, including our traditional allies, the G7, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand are supportive.

Recently, at their summit in Cornwall, the G7 leaders issued a communique that directly called upon China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Xinjiang and also referenced the situation in Hong Kong. The leaders also endorsed their foreign ministers’ communique from May 5 in London, where there were more specifics regarding forced labour, forced sterilization and also a call for unfettered access to the province for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

And this, of course, is where the Genocide Convention could come into the picture.

The Canadian-led declaration against arbitrary detention was endorsed, and there are now 63 countries that have signed on. We need to think of the two Michaels and others, colleagues, as well as the nationals of other countries.

International cooperation is important. In July 2006, I had the honour of being the senior official to accompany then-prime minister Stephen Harper to his first meeting with former president George W. Bush in the Oval Office in Washington. In his meeting with the president, which I attended, Mr. Harper raised the case of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen of Uighur background who was incarcerated in China. The prime minister asked for American support for his release. I reported on the meeting afterwards to my deputy minister, who incidentally is our colleague in the Senate, and we embarked on a global initiative to gather support from our friends to press for Mr. Celil’s release. We did a lot of work on this, but to no avail, despite our strong efforts.

In my more recent experience, China has been discussed at every G7 summit I have attended as personal representative, either with Mr. Harper or Mr. Trudeau.

Human rights have also been discussed with China in dialogue by our past six prime ministers. This is on the record.

This is also diplomacy, colleagues, and it was no different two weeks ago at the G7 summit in the U.K., and this subject will also be on the agenda next year when leaders meet in Germany.

It was also no coincidence that Prime Minister Trudeau had a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. I’m sure they were not discussing Vegemite and maple syrup in the context of the CPTPP. They were talking about our respective fraught relationships with the People’s Republic of China.

Incidentally, the Australian Senate chose not to pass the motion that specifically mentioned the treatment of Uighurs constituting the crime of genocide.

There were no references in these meetings at the G7 to moving the Olympics. Several countries have suggested a diplomatic boycott of the Olympic Games or sponsorship curtailment, not pressing the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, which will not be able to move them either, or penalizing athletes.

Motions suggesting diplomatic action have been moved in the U.S. and in the U.K. Only Canada has adopted a motion to ask the IOC to move the Olympic Games.

This motion is, in my view, rather absolutist in its request to press the IOC to move the Olympic Games. There are other measures that might be taken.

I want to just make a quick comment on Magnitsky. It came up in the last motion with respect to Senator De Lima in the Philippines. It seems to be a Senate default position here. If we can’t get something internationally, let’s bring in the Magnitsky Act. Canada has never implemented Magnitsky measures on its own. It’s not in this motion. I know that. But I just want to make the point that the government has many tools and a better-worded motion might have done the job in requesting the government to take all means necessary to support investigations and to work with its allies to press forward.

Also, were we not in the pandemic, our Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade could have and likely would have studied the relationship with China in all its complexities, which the other place can’t seem to do: human rights; the South China Sea; Hong Kong; Taiwan; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which runs across several governments in recent history here; the Belt and Road Initiative, and that was indeed the intention of the steering committee. We were, however, confined, as we all know, to government business, and we did some good work on the international aspects of the pandemic. In my view, this is the good work the Senate can undertake.

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 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.

The very public denunciations that we make will only reinforce an internal Chinese view of us as adversarial. If that’s what we want to do, fine. But in the event, it is the people of China who will change that country’s behaviours, and if we wish to influence them, I would suggest this is not the way.

Why should we reiterate this now, becoming the only bicameral parliament in the world where the upper and lower houses issue the very same motion, when there is so much at stake now and in the medium and in the longer term for Canada? We can’t forget the two Michaels and the other incarcerated Canadians. I think the point has already been made, but poking China again is unlikely to change things.

Determined international work with our friends and allies can hopefully make a bigger difference in dealing with what is clearly a troubling situation for the Uighur and Turkic Muslim minority in China. That is what is going on. This, I think, is the sobriety requirement that this institution, our Senate, should undertake.

Colleagues, 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. For these reasons, I do not support the motion. Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

On debate. Senator McPhedran, do you have a question?

Hon. Marilou McPhedran [ + ]

Yes, please, if there is time.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

Yes, there is just a little over a minute.

Senator McPhedran [ + ]

Senator Boehm, I wonder if you could tell us briefly what could senators do, if not this motion.

Senator Boehm [ + ]

Thank you, Senator McPhedran. That’s a good question. I think I answered it by saying that if we looked at this in a committee, it would be a much better way. We could call forward witnesses and experts, including our ambassadors, and have a rather rich discussion that way and bring it then back into the chamber. Thank you.

Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond [ + ]

Honourable senators, I want to speak briefly to Motion No. 79. First, I would like to thank Senator Housakos and Senator McPhedran for drawing the attention of the Senate to the disturbing acts committed by the Government of the People’s Republic of China against the Uighur people. The wording of this proposed motion is the same as the one adopted by the House of Commons on February 22, 2021, without the participation of cabinet and the parliamentary secretaries.

Some significant events have happened since that motion was adopted. First, the Biden administration clarified its position. In addition, the Government of Canada responded to the motion and recently took certain positions, including the recent decision to put forward a statement signed by 43 other countries, including the United States, at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The declaration states the following:

We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture. There are also reports of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents by authorities.

We —

— We are talking here of the 44 countries in question, led by Canada —

— urge China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the High Commissioner, and to urgently implement the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s 8 recommendations related to Xinjiang, including by ending the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities.

In the end, the International Olympic Committee said that it was impossible to move the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to another city outside China.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, David Shoemaker, said that relocating the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games “. . . would be next to impossible.”

Under these new circumstances, I think it would be helpful to amend the motion so that it reflects the new reality, as it is now translated by the action of the government and the position of the Olympic Committee.

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