Ottawa must act to free our hostages in China

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June 28, 2020

Ottawa must act to free our hostages in China

Written by Robin Sears for the Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.

In the more than 370 years since the nation state established its sole governing authority over the people who live within its borders, there has always been one unbreachable quid pro quo. It is a government’s absolute obligation to protect and to ensure the safety of its citizens. When a Canadian citizen is being illegally held — by terrorists or a state indulging in hostage diplomacy — it is essential to political legitimacy that the government of Canada secures their release. Humiliatingly, Canada has had a very mixed record in delivering on this promise.

Ottawa’s position on kidnapping has been dangerous and naïve. It has led to Canadians being murdered with impunity. Without another government’s secret intervention it would have led to the death of two more. Its refusal to intervene aggressively is well known to terrorist groups and states such as Iran, Russia and especially now, to China. Quiet diplomacy and private negotiation are defensible tools in the first days, perhaps weeks, of a kidnapping or illegal imprisonment.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been held in tiny cells, on a diet of boiled rice and vegetables, for nearly 18 months!

Our government has been slow to recognize how dramatically different President Xi Jinping is from any other Chinese leader since Mao. He has shattered China’s slow rise in approval among the democracies. He has ruined relations with an increasing number of European countries and Australia. Ottawa has equally developed a paralyzing fear of Trump madness that is embarrassing to witness.

Former attorneys general, justice ministers and legal scholars have all declared that extradition is ultimately a political, not a legal decision, in which national interest must govern decision-making by a justice minister. The law is clear “on its face,” is the scathing judgment of Canada’s most internationally famous justice, Louise Arbour, demanding that the disastrous Meng Wanzhou fiasco be brought to an end.

There is another Canadian hostage in this drama, the prime minister. Paralyzed by his fear of both Trump’s and Chinese sanctions, he seems to believe it is not in our national interest to defend the lives of Canadian citizens. He also seem to believe that more Canadians will be at risk if he negotiated an exchange.

The reverse is true. More Canadians are at risk as a result of his failure. Why would China not conclude, “If we can seize two with impunity, why not 10?” If these were American hostages, one may be sure any U.S. president would have acted. Washington recently completed a prisoner exchange with its most hated enemy, Iran. It is not a concession to a bully to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Refusing to do so grants the bully a victory.

Canada desperately needs a new foreign policy strategy on China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. We need to accept the reality of a new more hostile and aggressive China, and to build a foreign policy in recognition of this new reality. The view held by some in Ottawa remains, that once this unhappy chapter is closed, relations will return to the warmer pre-Xi era. First, that is delusional. Second, waiting for that day to come without taking action to free our hostages could be five to eight years from now. They may not survive that many more years in a brutal Chinese prison system.

But even if there were a miraculous change of heart on Beijing’s part, and our hostages were released, our relationship will not return to anything like it was for many more years. Probably not as long as this Chinese president is alive. Politically, the cost of failing to act grows daily. Fewer than one in five Canadians approve of today’s China, according to Angus Reid.

The worst thing that could happen now is for Ottawa’s increasingly embarrassing failure to be used as a partisan club with which to beat this government. That would only make Beijing smile at the divisions here that their strategy had unleashed.

This is a light-switch political moment. Secure the release of our hostages in a prisoner exchange and we can begin rethinking our relationship with an increasingly arrogant authoritarian state. Fail to secure their release and the government of Canada will have broken the foundational pledge to its citizens — that it will protect them from harm. If the two Michaels are not granted their freedom soon, long before a federal election is even contemplated, this pusillanimity will exact a very high political price, indeed.