To break the impasse on the detention of Spavor and Kovrig, Canada has 3 options

Say a prayer for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Their chances of freedom are remote without collective action by the democracies, writes former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson.

Canada needs to hold China to account, says former diplomat

Businessman Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig have been in Chinese custody since December 2018. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

Say a prayer for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Their chances of freedom are remote without collective action by the democracies.

What a mess. Had we known the implications of proceeding with the U.S. extradition request for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, we might well have shown the "creative incompetence" suggested by former foreign affairs minister John Manley by letting her complete her flight to Mexico.

Now, Messrs. Kovrig and Spavor face decades in Chinese prison. In China, rule of law is what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decides is in the best interest of the CCP, making them prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.

According to the Chinese foreign ministry, this case is based on "clear facts and solid evidence," their stock phrase when results are already decided.

For months now the Canadian government has applied what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes as a "wide range of public and private measures," Canada having developed a "certain expertise in what has worked to get Canadians home in very difficult circumstances." Unfortunately, with no consular access for months, Messrs. Spavor and Kovrig are now in even more difficult circumstances.

Getting tough — or giving in

There is no easy way to secure the release of the two Michaels. Going forward, the Trudeau government has three broad options:

First, continue the current approach of responding to Chinese actions while encouraging allies to speak out. Mr. Trudeau has hardened his language, now "deploring" Chinese actions and refuting Chinese claims that Canada is "racist" or employing "double standards" in detaining Meng. But it would be diplomatic self-delusion to think this is having any effect on the Chinese.

Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, was detained in Vancouver in December 2018. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Second, do a swap or release Meng. A swap, as suggested early on by John Manley as well as some diplomats and officials, might have worked in the early stages, especially if the government had employed former prime minister Jean Chretien as envoy. But that time has probably passed.

The release of Meng using the authority of the justice minister — as now suggested by another former minister, a Supreme Court justice and a group of former parliamentarians and diplomats — would represent an about-face by the Canadian government. Having wrapped itself in the cloak of high principle on the "rule of law" and "independence of the judiciary," such a move would be viewed as appeasement by critics and our allies. 

Despite his musings about using Meng to get a better trade deal with China, U.S. President Donald Trump may well decide to take retaliatory action against Canada. 

For the Chinese, it would be a vindication of "hostage diplomacy" and bullying. What assurances, moreover, do we have that the Chinese would immediately release the two Michaels?

A more co-ordinated approach

The third option is to show more muscle and respond asymmetrically to Chinese bullying. As a first step, revoke the visas for the children of senior officials studying in Canada and ask our Five Eyes partners to take similar action. The Chinese prize an English-language education. Xi Jinping's daughter studied at Harvard; Xi himself did work and studied in Iowa

Canada hosts approximately 140,000 Chinese students — even if they cannot travel to Canada, they will want to continue their education remotely. You can be sure the students' families would be upset. 

We should also raise the stakes by taking the cases of the two Michaels to the International Court of Justice, alleging torture (Kovrig's wife told CBC's Adrienne Arsenault that he's been imprisoned without access to daylight for more than 560 days) and infringement of Mr. Kovrig's diplomatic privileges (the Chinese interrogated him on his service at our embassy in Beijing, a violation of diplomatic norms).

WATCH | Michael Kovrig's wife, Vina Nadjibulla, talks about her husband's detention:

Michael Kovrig’s wife on fighting for his freedom: exclusive interview

2 years ago
Duration 13:23
Michael Kovrig’s wife (though separated) Vina Nadjibulla speaks for the first time in an exclusive interview with Adrienne Arsenault about his detention, Canada’s diplomacy and her fears for the future. Nadjibulla also shares letters Kovrig has sent during his 560 days in a Chinese prison.

We should employ a team of human rights lawyers from NATO countries as well as Commonwealth and Francophonie nations to underline that this is a multilateral effort.

The Chinese may well respond with more sanctions on Canadian trade, in which case we should immediately appeal to the World Trade Organization, arguing that the Chinese are violating their trade obligations.

Holding China to account 

China has taken an a la carte approach to the rules-based system, especially in its abuse of trade privileges. We need to hold China to account. In addition to seeking redress through the WTO, we should also initiate an OECD-endorsed code of conduct for state-owned enterprises, modelled after provisions in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership.

The government should be looking at variations on all three options — the pros and cons involved in each — and ask the Canada-China parliamentary committee to canvas for more ideas.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson says the world's democracies need to use their collective weight to hold China and its leader, Xi Jinping, right, to account. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

We have allies and friends. China doesn't, really — they have clients, like North Korea. The democracies need to use their collective weight to sustain a system that has given the world relative peace and increased prosperity for 75 years .

When Pierre Trudeau established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China 50 years ago, it was an astute recognition that one-fifth of humanity could not be ignored.

No one is ignoring China anymore, but being big does not give China a free pass on human rights and international obligations. Its access to the rules-based global order allowed it to restore itself as the powerful Middle Kingdom. Unless the democracies stand together, China will just keep taking hostages and breaking the norms.


Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and is vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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