MPs vote to label China's persecution of Uighurs a genocide

·8 min read
People gather on Parliament Hill on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, to protest the Chinese government's treatment of the Uighur minority in China.
People gather on Parliament Hill on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, to protest the Chinese government's treatment of the Uighur minority in China.

(Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)

The House of Commons today accused the Chinese government of carrying out a campaign of genocide against Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.

A substantial majority of MPs — including most Liberals who participated — voted in favour of a Conservative motion that says China's actions in its western Xinjiang region meet the definition of genocide set out in the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention.

The final tally was 266 in favour and zero opposed. Two MPs formally abstained.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and almost all of his cabinet colleagues were absent for the vote. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau was the only cabinet minister present. When it was his turn, he said he abstained "on behalf of the Government of Canada."

The motion also calls on the government to lobby the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympic Games out of Beijing.

It was passed over the strenuous objections of Chinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu, who denounced the vote as meddling in China's internal affairs.

China also condemned the motion. At a briefing in Beijing Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China has lodged stern representations with Canada.

After the vote, Garneau issued a statement saying the federal government remains "deeply disturbed by horrific reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang, including the use of arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilization.

"The government of Canada will continue to work with international partners to defend vulnerable minorities and we once again repeat our call for transparency and a credible international investigation in response to allegations of genocide.

"This investigation must be conducted by an international and independent body so that impartial experts can observe and report on the situation first-hand."

'Stop spreading disinformation,' says China

Media reports and academic and UN experts have accused China of imprisoning Uighurs in concentration and "deradicalization" camps and targeting them for forced labour, sexual violence, population control methods and sweeping surveillance. China's foreign ministry has denied the accusations.

The motion calls on the government to officially adopt the position that China is engaged in genocide, and to coordinate a response with the U.S. and other allies.

While it's not clear what impact — if any — the non-binding resolution will have on the Liberal government's approach to China, it threatens to inflame relations between the two countries at a time when they're already tense due to the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities more than two years ago, and China's subsequent imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

In a statement posted to the Chinese embassy's website prior to the vote, Cong insisted the reports of Uighur persecution are based on lies.

"A few people in Canada and some other western countries are talking about upholding values, but one important part of the values should be: respect facts and stop spreading disinformation and even lies," Cong said in the statement.

"We urge the Canadian side to take seriously China's solemn position … so as not to cause further damages to China-Canada relations."

'A time for moral clarity'

At a press conference this morning, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the evidence of China's crimes is overwhelming. He cited survivor testimony, satellite images, video, documents and media reports from major U.S. and international news outlets.

"Today is a time for moral clarity," said Chong. "We can no longer ignore this. We must call it for what it is — a genocide."

Chong and Conservative human rights critic Garnett Genuis were joined at the event by a Uighur woman who fled China and has become an outspoken critic of the Chinese regime.

WATCH | Conservatives call on all MPs to support Uighur genocide motion:

Speaking through a translator, Kalbinur Tursun said she was assigned to teach Chinese at a mass detention facility and a women's prison in the city of Ürümqi from March to November 2017.

She said that during her time in the job, she saw or heard of multiple acts of intimidation, violence and rape directed against Uighur people.

"No one should be subjected to such cruelty," she said.

Tursun said she was forcibly sterilized in 2019 through a surgical procedure, along with hundreds of other Uighur women.

Tursun said some of her relatives are still in Chinese prisons and that Chinese authorities have targeted her for harassment and intimidation to punish her for speaking out.

Canada wants independent investigation

MPs on the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights agreed in an October report with the experts who say China's campaign against the Uighurs meets the definition of genocide set out by the UN. The committee heard testimony from several Uighur witnesses who gave first-hand accounts of atrocities

Bob Rae, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, called on the United Nations in November to investigate whether China's persecution of ethnic Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang constitutes genocide.

Despite these calls, Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet ministers have been reluctant to use the word "genocide" to describe China's actions against the Uighurs. Last week, Trudeau said the word is an "extremely loaded" one and he is not prepared to use it at this point.

Watch: MPs discuss what's next now that the House has declared China is committing a genocide:

In question period today, Garneau said the government takes allegations against China "very seriously" and has raised its concerns directly with the Chinese government.

Garneau said Canada wants independent investigators to go into China to document abuses and is working with international partners to gain access to the region.

A formal genocide declaration would bring Canada in line with the U.S. ahead of a virtual bilateral meeting between Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden scheduled for Tuesday.

A man wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus walks past the Olympic rings on the exterior of the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, which will be a venue for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. A motion passed by the House of Commons today calls on the government to lobby for relocation of the games out of China due to the country's human rights record.
A man wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus walks past the Olympic rings on the exterior of the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, which will be a venue for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. A motion passed by the House of Commons today calls on the government to lobby for relocation of the games out of China due to the country's human rights record.

In January, former U.S. secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration had determined that China had committed "genocide and crimes against humanity" in Xinjiang region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has continued the former administration's policy of describing China's treatment of the Uighurs as genocide.

"My judgment remains that genocide was committed ... against the Uighurs and that hasn't changed," Blinken said late last month.

Canada-China tensions continue

The push by MPs to condemn China and relocate the Olympic Games comes at a time of heightened tensions. Beijing has been demanding for the past two years that Canada release a top executive of communications giant Huawei who is wanted on fraud charges in the United States.

Meng Wanzhou, who is also the daughter of the company's founder, denies the charges, which China says are politically motivated and part of a U.S. effort to stifle the nation's economic expansion.

Watch: Government has 'moral obligation' to examine ties with China, says Liberal MP:

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities nine days after the RCMP arrested the Chinese tech scion at the Vancouver airport in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole told reporters after the vote that Trudeau and his cabinet missed an opportunity to stand up for human rights — as former prime minister Brian Mulroney did with the campaign against racial apartheid in South Africa.

"There's real suffering going on in China. There's a genocide happening and Canadians, while we're free traders and I'm very proud to be a free market party, our values are not for sale and Mr. Trudeau needed to send that message today," O'Toole said.

The Conservative leader also said that fear of a trade backlash is not a good enough reason to ignore human rights violations in China.

"We will work with any sectors impacted by us standing up for human rights and dignity, as we have done before," he said.

Watch: O'Toole reacts after House of Commons declares China is committing genocide:

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul issued a statement criticizing the Liberal cabinet and the prime minister for abstaining from the vote and urged the federal government to strongly condemn China, lead a discussion with allies to bring China back into compliance with international law and consider legal actions.

"Canada is not powerless, and it has a variety of multilateral and unilateral options available to respond to the genocide against the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in China," she said in the statement.