Politics

The U.S. may implement a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. Canada should follow, experts say

The Canadian government should consider following the United States if it implements a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games to protest China's human rights abuses, former diplomats and experts say.

Biden says diplomatic boycott is something his government is 'considering'.

During a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden, said a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games was 'something we are considering.' (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

If the U.S. government implements a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games to protest China's human rights abuses, Canada should do the same, former diplomats and experts say.

"I think that at this late stage, it's probably the best thing to do," said Guy Saint-Jacques, who was Canada's ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016.

A diplomatic boycott would involve a country refusing to send a political contingent to the Winter Games — scheduled to begin in February — yet allowing its athletes to still participate. 

"You have to think about the athletes and about all the years of training that they've put in," Saint-Jacques said. "At a minimum, in these circumstances, there should be no official delegation that goes to the opening ceremony in Beijing."

"I think it's important because every time that you capitulate and you say 'Well, it won't make any change,' China is very pleased with this because they say 'Our strategy is working and nobody dares to criticize us.'"

During a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden, when asked by reporters, said a diplomatic boycott was "something we are considering."

The question and Biden's response followed recent media reports that the U.S. may soon announce such a measure. This week, the Washington Post reported the White House is expected to announce that neither Biden nor any other U.S. government officials will attend the Beijing Games. 

Later, in a late night news conference in Washington, Trudeau would not say whether Canada would also consider a diplomatic boycott of the Games.

"We've been engaged with like-minded partners around the world over the past many months on this issue," he said.

"We continue to have those discussions and, as the Games approach, I'm sure there will be more information as to the exact posture Canada and indeed the world will take towards this issue."

Accused China of genocide

Human rights activists say China's oppression of political critics, along with minority groups including Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uyghurs and a crackdown in Hong Kong, should prompt athletes and politicians to shun the games. Canada's House of Commons, the former Trump administration and activists have also accused of China of carrying out a genocide against the Uyghurs.

The Chinese government has denied accusations of human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, a number of senior U.S. politicians have called for a diplomatic boycott, including Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who oversaw the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"Prohibiting our athletes from competing in China is the easy, but wrong, answer," Romney wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times in March. "Our athletes have trained their entire lives for this competition and have primed their abilities to peak in 2022."

"Rather than send the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials to Beijing, the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us."

In a statement to CBC News, David Shoemaker, the Canadian Olympic Committee CEO & Secretary General said members understand and respect that governments will do what they believe is right to make statements or drive change, including a diplomatic boycott of major events.

"The decision whether Canadian government representatives will attend is theirs to make," he said.

Implementing such a boycott won't make any difference to China if only one or two countries are involved, said Canadian lawyer and International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Dick Pound.

Develop consensus

"You'd have to develop some kind of a consensus among the Europeans and North Americans and whatever it may be," he said. "And at a certain point, even the Chinese have to pay attention. But if it's just Canada or just the United States, they don't care."

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said that organization has called for a postponement and relocation of the Olympics. A diplomatic boycott is the minimum that Canadian government officials could do, he said.

Torchbearers transfer the Olympic flame from a safety lantern to a torch during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Flame Welcoming Ceremony at Beijing Olympic Tower last month in Beijing, China. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

"It is not enough, but at least it is important to send a signal to China's government that we are not part of the Genocide Olympics — that's what I call it," he said.

"Our politicians should not go there and our government representatives should not go there. This is one step to compel  China to change in the right direction."

But such action could have some impact, said  Angela Schneider, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University.

"The Chinese administration do care," she said. "They are very interested in attendance by diplomatic entourages. And I do think that is a strong statement

"I don't know that it's going to change any specific policies, but neither is a full-blown boycott. Absolutely not. And a full-blown boycott will hurt our own athletes. So I would say, let's make a statement that doesn't hurt our own people."

Mac Ross, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Western University in London, Ont., who has written about the issue, said a diplomatic boycott would not only send a message to China but to the IOC about how they select host nations and what "the line in the sand is in terms of human rights violations."

WATCH | Calls for Beijing 2022 boycott continue amid arrival of Olympic flame:

Calls for boycott continue as Olympic flame arrives in Beijing

1 month ago
2:01
Organizers kept protesters away when the Olympic flame arrived in Beijing, but calls for a boycott were prominent during the flame’s lighting in Greece. 2:01

Ross said there should be an attempt to take some of the prestige away from the Games, even if it's by not sending diplomatic representation.

'Ratchet up the pressure'

"I think it's still important to make sure that ... people around the globe will take note and ask questions about, well, why is the diplomatic boycott happening," he said.  

"I'm not sure why it's taking so long for the Canadian government to say something meaningful about the Olympic Games.

"It's really frustrating as somebody who's kind of been watching every day waiting for some kind of announcement."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press

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