Diplomatic tensions between Canada and China have been on the rise for a number of years, particularly since the arrest in 2018 of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou by the Canadian authorities on behalf of the US. The Chinese response was swift and brutal – two Canadians were detained in China for ‘endangering national security.’ In late June, those tensions spilled over into the deliberations of the Human Rights Council when, first, Canada led a joint statement calling for a probe into gross and systematic human rights violations against the Uighur people of China’s Xinjiang region; and then China, in retaliation, delivered a joint statement demanding a UN investigation into Canada’s serious human rights violations against indigenous people.
The Canadian-led joint statement, delivered on behalf of 44 States (mainly Western and European countries), expressed serious concern about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Denouncing attacks on Uighurs’ fundamental freedoms and culture, Canada called on China to ensure unfettered access to independent observers and to ‘urgently implement the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s eight recommendations related to Xinjiang, including by ending the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities.’
China’s statement, delivered on behalf of eight countries (Belarus, China, DPRK, Iran, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Venezuela) immediately after Canada’s, responded by expressing ‘[deep concern] about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people [of] Canada,’ including past and present discrimination. This was, of course, a reference to the recent discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of over 200 children, at the site of a former ‘residential school’ for indigenous children in British Columbia. China argued that the discovery of the mass grave demonstrates long-standing discrimination against indigenous people in Canada, and drew particular attention to the treatment of indigenous children from the 1830s to the 1990s. During this period, many children were forcibly taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools, where they were often victims of malnutrition, violence, rape, and abuse.
Both joint statements contained serious allegations of human rights violations, however, where they differed, was in the concerned States’ responses to those allegations, a point eloquently made by Canada. During the interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canada acknowledged the country had ‘historically denied the rights of indigenous peoples,’ and reaffirmed its commitment to supporting survivors and their families and implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Moreover, the Canadian Government has issued a number of apologies for the residential school system, and has not denied the reality of the terrible human rights abuses committed within that system. Indeed, following a seven-year investigation, during which time it gathered the testimonies of victims, their families and relatives, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the treatment of indigenous children in Canada’s residential school system amounted to a cultural genocide.
In other words, Canada has acknowledged the truth of the serious human rights violations committed against indigenous people, and has taken steps to provide remedy and redress, and to ensure that such abuses never happen again. As hinted at by Canada and others at the Human Rights Council (e.g., the US in response to criticisms of its treatment of African Americans), Canada’s approach is a far cry from the reaction of China, which has been consistent in its denial that any human rights violations have occurred in Xinjiang, has not allowed for any investigation – domestic or international – to ascertain the truth, and has certainly not established any process to deliver remedy and redress.
The 2018 Universal Periodic Reviews of the two countries offers a fascinating microcosm of these two conflicting approaches. Whereas the national UPR report of Canada systematically highlights the situation of indigenous peoples, the national report of China makes no mention of the Uighurs and only refers to positive developments in the Xinjiang region.
The juxtaposition of the different approaches of Canada and China to allegations of human rights violations, was elegantly laid out by Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, when he was asked about China’s call for an investigation into human rights abuses in Canada. He said: “The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on. China is not even recognising that there is a problem. That is a pretty fundamental difference.”
China does have an opportunity to reverse this course – to be more open to engaging and cooperating with the UN human rights system, in pursuit of truth, reconciliation and justice. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has been in talks with the Chinese authorities for two years or more about visiting Xinjiang (with ‘unhindered access’), and seeing for herself the reality on the ground. However, those talks seem to be no closer to securing ‘unhindered access’ than they were when they started.
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