Dozens of MPs, senators call for sanctions against China over human rights abuses

Sixty-eight MPs and senators have added their names to a letter to the prime minister demanding that Canada levy sanctions on top Chinese officials in response to human rights abuses perpetrated against Uighur Muslims and pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.

In a letter, a multi-partisan group says Ottawa should use Magnitsky Act to target Chinese Communist officials

People wearing masks stand during a rally to show support for Uighurs and their fight for human rights in Hong Kong, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

Sixty-eight MPs and senators have added their names to a letter to the prime minister demanding that Canada levy sanctions on top Chinese officials in response to human rights abuses perpetrated against Uighur Muslims and pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.

The letter, signed by 64 MPs, four senators and various community leaders, is the latest attempt by some parliamentarians to put pressure on the government to take a tougher stand against China.

The letter has been signed by two Liberal backbenchers — Judy Sgro and John McKay — and MPs from all of the other parties, including Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May and a substantial portion of the Conservative caucus.

Two of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's appointments to the Senate, Marilou McPhedran and Pierre Dalphond, also have signed their names to the list of Canadian lawmakers pushing for some sort of punitive action against the regime in Beijing.

McKay told CBC News he can't stay silent as China persecutes the Uighur minority through the "virtual enslavement and imprisonment of an entire population" and dismantles the hard-won democratic rights of Hong Kongers.

"There's no accommodation that you can make with China," he said, adding that Beijing's violations of human rights should be countered by financial manoeuvres that hit its officials where it hurts.

He said he was a "little slow" in coming around to the belief that China's abuses — and its arbitrary detention on Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — must be met with some sort of response beyond diplomacy.

"It's a colossal bully play by an emergent power and there's only one way to deal with a bully," McKay said of China's move to charge the two Canadians.

MP John McKay is one of two Liberals that have signed their names to a letter calling on the federal government to impose sanctions on Chinese Communist party officials for human rights abuses. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

While China will be angered by any sanctions — China's ambassador to Canada has promised "very firm countermeasures" if Ottawa goes that route — McKay said Canada must take a stand in the face of "warrior diplomacy nonsense."

"I think you have to anticipate blowback. We have our vulnerabilities," he said. "But you either start drawing lines in the sand or you just keep getting trampled.

"I think the sooner that we recognize that we are in a form of asymmetrical conflict, warfare, with the government of China, the more we're able to strategically deal with it."

He said Canada and its Western allies should present a united front against China and adopt a NATO-like approach so that aggressive posturing by Beijing is met with a policy of "an attack on one is an attack on all." 

'Blatant human rights atrocities'

The letter-writing campaign calling for sanctions was organized by the Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK), a group of pro-democracy Hong Kongers in Canada.

The letter writers say Ottawa should deploy the Sergei Magnitsky Act to target Chinese officials.

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 letter quotes Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who said earlier this month that "sanctions are an important tool to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations to account."

"As a leader on the international human rights discussion, to invoke Magnitsky sanctions against these officials is a strong and symbolic action that is consistent with how Canada has applied this act in the past," the letter reads.

"Canada needs to take a strong stance against blatant human rights atrocities and coordinate a multilateral effort amongst countries with shared values to reclaim our leadership on the global stage."

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.

A pro-democracy demonstrator waves the British colonial Hong Kong flag during a protest against new national security legislation in Hong Kong June 1. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

China's detention of Uighur Muslims, its attack on democratic rights in Hong Kong, its decades-long repression of Tibet and its imprisonment of two Michaels have been cited as reasons for the federal government to employ the Magnitsky Act, which was passed into law in Canada in 2017.

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."

The National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp Communist-controlled parliament, has introduced a national security and anti-sedition law in Hong Kong. The law essentially does away with the city's independent legal system and allows Beijing to override local laws.

Advocates 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.


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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now