Senators call for Magnitsky Act sanctions on Chinese officials to punish 'tyrannical behaviour'

More than a dozen senators — including several appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — are calling on the federal government to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for "gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Trudeau has been reluctant to criticize China — but some of his Senate picks are calling for sanctions

A Chinese flag is seen behind a fence topped with razor wire.
This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows the Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region. A group of Canadian senators is calling for sanctions against top Chinese officials in response to human rights violations by the regime in Beijing. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

More than a dozen senators — including several appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — are calling on the federal government to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for "gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

In a June 23 letter addressed to Trudeau jointly written by Conservative Sens. Thanh Hai Ngo and Leo Housakos and co-signed by 11 others, the parliamentarians say Canada should take a stand against China.

Citing China's detention of Uighur Muslims, its crackdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong, its decades-long repression of Tibet and its imprisonment of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the senators describe the regime in Beijing as the "biggest threat to mankind and a danger to international security."

The senators say the best way for Canada to respond to China's "tyrannical behaviour" is to levy sanctions on top Communist Party officials using the Sergei Magnitsky Law. The law allows the government to impose financial and other restrictions on foreign nationals responsible for, or complicit in, violating internationally recognized human rights.

The law also allows the government to freeze assets owned by foreign nationals and prohibit financial transactions by known human rights abusers. The law is named after Russian tax adviser Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and died in a Moscow prison after documenting fraud in Russia.

Canada has used the legislation to sanction human rights abusers from Russia and Venezuela, preventing them from using the Canadian banking system.

In November 2018, Canada sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals who were responsible for, or complicit in, the torture and death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"Unfortunately, the PRC's tyrannical behaviour towards Hong Kongers, Uighurs and other Muslim Minorities is just the latest in a continued pattern that has become an extremely dangerous habit as it is constantly and mercilessly perpetrating horrendous and utterly inhuman acts towards other groups," the senators say in their letter.

"Now, more for than ever, the time has come for the government to firmly stand up for these values and take concrete action by imposing Magnitsky sanctions."

Last fall, a leak of internal Chinese government documents to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) painted a stark picture of Uighur concentration camps, which have been built across the Xinjiang region over the past three years.

The Muslim minority is routinely subjected to intrusive government surveillance, intimidating phone calls and even death threats, according to Amnesty International.

A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that thousands of Muslims have been used as forced labour in factories that supply companies like BMW, Nike and Huawei, among others.

China's ambassador to Canada has called these camps — where as many as one million ethnic Muslims are subjected to compulsory ideological lessons under the watchful eye of party officials — "vocational training centres."

Chinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu speaks as part of a panel at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa, March 4, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp Communist-controlled parliament, also has said it will introduce a national security and anti-sedition law in Hong Kong. The law would do away with the city's independent legal system and allow Beijing to override local laws.

The senators say China's Hong Kong policy is a clear violation of its international obligations under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guaranteed a "one country, two systems" framework following the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

"Canada, as a member state of the UN, along with the international community, has an interest and a responsibility to defend the international rules-based order," the senators write.

The letter adds that Canadian citizens also have been targeted by the regime's "overreach and despotism," both abroad — with the "illegal detainment of our brave Canadians" — and at home, where Chinese Canadians opposed to the Communist dictatorship face "harassment and intimidation" from organizations like the United Front.

Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran is one of four Trudeau appointees who signed the letter.

In a speech Tuesday, she said China proved itself to be a bad actor through the establishment of the Uighur concentration camps, its violent crackdown on protests in Hong Kong, its arrests of human rights observers and allegations of forced organ transplantation.

"Can we just pause for a moment and hear what I'm about to say? We are talking about organs inside people's bodies forcibly and surgically removed from live prisoners of conscience," she said, citing research from the China Tribunal, an independent judicial investigation based in the United Kingdom.

Trudeau has been reluctant to publicly criticize China with Kovrig and Spavor still imprisoned there and facing espionage charges.

Trudeau said last week he was "disappointed" by China's move to formally charge the two men with spying. He said Canada would continue to work "behind the scenes in very direct and firm ways" to secure their release.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was "heartbroken and really angry" over the development.

Asked Tuesday at a Commons committee if Canada would impose sanctions, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne dodged the question, saying, "Canada is on the forefront of human rights around the world."

Progressive Sen. Jim Munson, a former journalist who covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, said he has respect for Trudeau and the challenges he faces during this diplomatic fracas, "but I think somewhere along the line there has to be more than just saying we're disappointed."

"We have to stand up to the bully," Munson said in a speech to the Senate Tuesday. "If we don't stand up, who will stand up for what takes place in China?

"I know the government has raised the human rights issue at every opportunity, but it doesn't seem to be working. China has shown that it will not listen to reason or to allies. It is playing games with people's freedoms and precious lives. Beijing needs to be held accountable for the abuses."


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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