Champagne talks with China, but no action on detained Canadians Kovrig and Spavor

Canada has not imposed sanctions against Chinese officials for their role in the Canadians' detention, which a growing number of people are calling for

Canada's Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne meets with China's State Councillor Wang Yi in Rome, Italy, August 25, 2020. Yara Nardi/Reuters/File

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OTTAWA – Canada’s foreign minister raised the arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart this week, but did not warn the Chinese of new sanctions or consequences for the ongoing imprisonment of the two men.

“I told him that arbitrary detention was certainly not conducive to relations between states ever but certainly now,” Foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne said of his meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

Canada has not imposed sanctions against Chinese officials for their role in the detention of Spavor and Kovrig, which a growing number of people are calling for the government to do.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said Canada’s response had consistently involved nothing more than empty words.

“You look at the response of the government, and there’s been a lot of inaction and the limited steps they have taken have involved words, but not actions,” he said.

Genuis said not taking a tougher stance on hostage diplomacy was only going to make it more difficult.

“Clarity and that firmness that we will not give into hostage diplomacy is not only good for the two Michaels but it’s good for other Canadians who might be at risk of being abducted in the future,” he said. “We cannot in any way, allow hostage diplomacy to work on us.”

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Champagne raised the cases of Kovrig and Spavor with Wang on Tuesday in Italy during a 90-minute meeting focused mainly on the two men, as well as several Canadians who have been sentenced to death in China.

Spavor and Kovrig have been held since December 2018 after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant. While Meng has been released on bail during the hearings, free to live at one of two Vancouver homes, Kovrig and Spavor have been detained in detention facilities.

The two men had only limited consular access before the pandemic began and have had none since January. China has refused access to the pair, citing COVID restrictions, despite large parts of the country having reopened as cases of the virus dwindled.

“I reminded him that Canada will always insist on having consular access to both Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and that we expect them to respect the spirit and the letter of the Vienna Convention,” he said.

Champagne said he believed the Chinese were listening.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that our voice has been heard. And I’m looking forward to improvement on the consular side.”

A man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who are detained in China, outside B.C. Supreme Court where Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was attending a hearing, in Vancouver, on Jan. 21, 2020. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/File

However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said during a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, “I would like to stress once again that things between China and Canada have come to this stage not because of China.

“The Canadian side is well aware of the crux of the problem. It should take immediate and effective measures to correct the mistakes and create conditions for bilateral relations to return to the right track.”

China has repeatedly insisted that Meng’s arrest was unlawful and that the two Canadians were arrested on legitimate national security charges, but officials have also suggested Kovrig and Spavor could be released if Meng was released.

Champagne said he emphasized Canada was not alone in wanting to see the men released. Champagne said there was a growing number of countries who were paying attention to the situation. He said those countries view the cases as something that could impact them.

“This is not just two Canadians being detained arbitrarily. This is two citizens of a liberal democracy being detained arbitrarily and every liberal democracy should be concerned.”

Beijing is currently set to host the Winter Olympics in February 2022. Champagne said it was not up to him to decide if Canada attended.

“With respect to the Olympics, I don’t think that is a decision for the Foreign Minister of Canada. That’s a decision for the Olympic Committee of Canada.”

Every liberal democracy should be concerned

Genuis said Canada should be talking with allies now about the Olympics in 2022, not just because of Spavor and Kovrig, but because of China’s aggressive take over in Hong Kong and the plight of Ugyhur Muslims who were being persecuted in the country.

“We need to look at historic precedents, where the Olympics have been used as a sort of propaganda boost for authoritarian regimes, we need to learn the lessons of those events,” he said.

Genuis said Canada should have a unified position on the Games with allies.

“We don’t want to see a repeat of the experience of the 1936 Olympics. So I think this is something that allies need to be discussing.”

The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin during the Nazi rule of Germany and the Games were used a propaganda tool.

Champagne is on his first overseas trip since the pandemic began and has been to Switzerland, Italy and Lebanon. He held a teleconference from Lebanon on Thursday after touring the site of the devastating explosion in Beirut and pledged assistance for the rebuild there.

Canada’s foreign assistance in Lebanon has so far been directed to the NGO’s avoiding the country’s scandal-plagued government.

Champagne said he told the country’s President Michel Aoun, who has faced significant protests over his leadership, that Canada was ready to help his country, but there would have to be real reforms in the government first.

“There cannot be aid without real reforms,” he said. “The street has spoken.”

Champagne is set to meet with the U.K’s Foreign minister Friday before returning home and going into quarantine for 14 days.

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