Canada’s joint declaration against arbitrary detention needs teeth
25 Feb 2021|

On 15 February, Canada launched the ‘Declaration against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations’. The statement was endorsed by 59 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.

While the declaration doesn’t specify any particular state responsible for these actions, it’s widely believed to be tied to Canada’s ongoing efforts to free two of its citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, from arbitrary detention in China. Spavor and Kovrig were detained in China on 10 December 2018, one week after Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada pursuant to its extradition treaty with the US. While the two Canadians were eventually charged with spying (more than 18 months after they were arrested), the thinly veiled rationale for their detention is to apply pressure on the Canadian government to interfere in the legal process Meng is currently subject to.

The detention of Spavor and Kovrig is just one of 152 cases of coercive diplomacy by the Chinese Communist Party in the last 10 years, as tracked in an ASPI report I co-wrote in September. The report demonstrates the significant rise in the CCP’s use of coercive diplomacy since 2018, a trajectory that is likely to continue unless target states respond in a coordinated and joint manner.

One of the main findings of the report was that it’s in the CCP’s interests to isolate countries when it applies coercive measures. Until recently, states subjected to CCP coercion have undermined their own interests by responding bilaterally. Unsurprisingly, the use of coercive diplomacy against them has continued.

Canada’s approach to the fallout with China over the Meng case illustrates this point perfectly. Up to now, the Canadian government hadn’t taken any direct action against the CCP in response to the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor (beyond condemning the behaviour), likely in an attempt to avoid any further escalation. Yet the situation continued to escalate anyway, with trade and tourism restrictions enforced throughout 2019, and three Canadian citizens sentenced to death in China since the arrest of Meng.

While a number of Canada’s allies condemned the CCP’s actions, these responses lacked coordination (for example, the Australian government took three weeks to release a statement expressing its ‘concerns’ over the Canadians’ detention), which ultimately sent a clear message to the CCP that Canada was on its own (as was Australia, which had its own citizens arbitrarily arrested in China).

A lot has changed in the past three years. Canada’s lead on the joint declaration is the mark of a new direction for the government in response to the CCP’s coercive tactics, and the number of supporting signatures ‘reflects a deepening global frustration with the tactics of authoritarian regimes’. The harnessing of this international political pressure will likely have more of an impact than the content of the declaration.

The practice of arbitrary detention already violates a number of international human rights laws, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, so declaring the illegality of the CCP’s actions will be less effective than applying international political pressure.

The CCP is already working on flipping the narrative surrounding the declaration to its advantage on the Meng dispute. Although the CCP is yet to formally respond to the declaration, the party’s mouth-piece the Global Times has already fired off a number of articles accusing Canada (and the West more generally) of hypocrisy.

The CCP has long maintained the farce that the continued detention of the two Canadians has no relation to Meng’s case, and has in turn accused Canada of partaking in ‘hostage diplomacy’. This is despite the fact that on 24 June, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian directly linked the two cases. In a statement translated into English, Zhao said that the release of Meng, through Ottawa’s intervention in the extradition proceedings, ‘could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians’.

It’s clear that the work the Canadian government has put into the declaration is far from finished. As Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek warned, ‘For this initiative to succeed, we need as many signatories as possible.’ To be effective, the declaration must be complemented by enforcement measures to give it teeth. The declaration as it stands is a non-binding instrument, and steps should be made towards formalising it into a treaty—as Canada did when it took the lead in the campaign against landmines, which also started out as a declaration.

A treaty based on the declaration condemning arbitrary detention would amount to the coordinated joint pushback against the CCP that Canada, and all other target states, have needed from the beginning.