MPs pass motion declaring genocide against Uighurs in China, despite cabinet abstentions

Members of Parliament voted Monday to label China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims a genocide, and to call on the federal government to formally adopt that position, without the support of the Liberal cabinet.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not participate in the vote. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau abstained on the record while the rest of his cabinet colleagues were absent.

"I abstain on behalf of the Government of Canada," said Garneau when he made his position known.

In total 266 MPs, including all opposition MPs and most Liberal MPs who participated in the vote, backed the Conservative motion. There were no votes against the motion, and two MPs formally abstained in what was considered a free vote for Liberal MPs.

The motion, introduced last Thursday states, in part, that in the opinion of the House of Commons, "the People's Republic of China has engaged in actions consistent with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 260, commonly known as the 'Genocide Convention'.. [and] the House, therefore, recognize that a genocide is currently being carried out by the People's Republic of China against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims… and call on the government to officially adopt this position."

MPs also passed a Bloc Quebecois amendment to the motion to include language calling on the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Olympic Games "if the Chinese government continues this genocide."

There have long been reports gathered by journalists and international human rights advocates exposing instances of state surveillance, mass rape, forced labour, sterilization, and torture at China’s "re-education" camps for Uighurs.

While the motion is non-binding on the government, it is symbolic. It comes after a House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights concluded in October the situation amounted to a genocide.

In its findings released in October 2020, the committee of MPs unanimously agreed the actions of the Chinese government constitutes a genocide of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang.

"This is a non-partisan issue, this is a humanitarian issue, this is an issue of genocide, of crimes against humanity," said Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi at the time.

The MPs warned in the report that "if the international community does not condemn the human rights abuses in Xinjiang province by the Government of China, a precedent will be set, and these methods will be adopted by other regimes."

LIBERAL STANCE

Garneau has since issued a statement, noting that his colleagues’ absence during Monday’s vote doesn’t weaken the government’s condemnation of the "horrific reports of human rights violations" in China. He also repeated the call for international unity on the issue.

"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," the statement reads in part.

He added that a free vote allows individual members of Parliament to make their own judgements using best available evidence.

"Taken together, these views will form Parliament’s view. We welcome parliamentarians working together and debating this critical issue," reads the statement.

In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play on Monday Liberal MP Ali Ehassi, who was absent for the vote, said the reports that have surfaced about the treatment of the Uighurs don’t meet the definition of genocide.

"As someone who has practised international law, has done international litigation, it was quite obvious to me that the facts that have emerged are unconscionable, they’re egregious, but they do not fit the precise definition of a genocide," said Ehassi.

"Had the Conservatives decided to say that these were crimes against humanity, I absolutely would have voted for it."

The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as any of the following against a national, ethnical, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

OPPOSITION REACTION

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said the prime minister’s absence from the vote was "a terrible sign of leadership."

"The Conservatives call on the Trudeau government to "show up for work on human rights and stop their naïve approach to China. The Liberal government needs to stand up for what is right," he said speaking to reporters in Ottawa following the vote.

When asked about what potential trade repercussions naming China’s treatment of the Uighurs a genocide would inflict on Canada, O’Toole said that shouldn’t be the focus.

"There is 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," he said. 

NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson, who voted in favour of the motion, told Power Play that cabinet’s non-appearance was reflective of the government’s overall approach to China.

"[Cabinet] hid. It seems to me to be very along the same lines of their China policy to date, where there is such a lack of action," she said.

DIPLOMATIC REACTION

Former Ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques told Power Play that that Liberal cabinet won’t be able to hide from the possible wrath of China through its vote abstention.

"Cabinet was desperately looking for any fig leaf to try and camouflage themselves but I think in the eyes of the Chinese, it won’t make a difference because for them, Parliament and government is the same thing and so they will probably react strongly," he said on Monday’s show.

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu has previously cautioned the federal government about interfering in internal Chinese affairs.

Saint-Jacques added that the Liberals have put themselves in a tricky situation now following the lead of the opposition on an engagement strategy with China.

"There are risks with this, you are in reactive mode. I think the government first has to make use of the call tomorrow with President Biden and his team to see what can be done to try and help us with the fate of the two Michaels," he said.

Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been detained in a Chinese jail since December 10, 2018, largely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the U.S. days prior in Vancouver.

Biden and Trudeau will hold their first virtual face-to-face meeting Tuesday, following an initial phone conversation where securing the freedom of the two men was addressed.