Canada’s Motion To Recognize China’s Treatment Of The Uyghurs As Genocide And Why Trudeau Abstained

In the outcome of a parliamentary vote held last week, Canada became the second country behind the United States to describe China’s treatment of its Uyghur as genocide. This non-binding Conservative motion passed almost unanimously with members of parliament across both sides of the political spectrum siding in favor 266 votes to zero. In addition, an amendment to the motion, which was passed in a 229 to 29 vote, called upon the International Olympic Committee to move the upcoming 2022 Winter Games out of Beijing if the genocide does not stop. However, abstaining from the vote was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet, who have expressed and maintained a high degree of hesitancy over publicly characterizing the situation as genocide. 

Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party, stated in advance of the vote that the motion was necessary to send a “clear and unequivocal signal that we will stand up for human rights and the dignity of human rights, even if it means sacrificing some economic opportunity.” Although the motion is non-binding, meaning that it likely won’t have a tangible effect on the future diplomatic conduct of the Canadian government, many have placed emphasis on the symbolic role of the move. In praising the motion as a necessary step following the Houses conclusion in October 2020 that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs did in fact constitute genocide, “Justice for Canada”―a Canadian advocacy and human rights organization―said that this would, hopefully, “pave the way for new humanitarian and diplomatic intervention to halt the atrocities and crimes against humanity plaguing Uyghur minorities in the region.” 

In their statement in response to last Monday’s motion, Justice for Canada referenced disapproval for Trudeau and his cabinet in light of the decision not to partake in the vote; noting how the Houses’ adoption of this position serves “as a wake-up call for the Canadian government” and other world leaders to fulfill their obligation to contribute their weight in halting this continued oppression of Uyghur and Turkic Muslims. Moreover, the group also stated, “we are deeply dismayed that this formal genocide label was made without the participation of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.” 

This denunciation for Trudeau and his cabinet expressed by the Justice for all Canada in the same breath as their statement that praised, and emphasized the significance, of the motion―and the anti-Trudeau sentiment currently extending far beyond this isolated example―could very well represent a successful attempt made on part of the Conservative Party (Trudeau’s opposition) to incite immense political pressure on the sitting government. In other words, it appears that a central motivation behind the Conservative motion―a motion that Conservatives in all likelihood would not have been advanced if they were in power―was the awareness of the political pressure that would be put on Trudeau.

Despite the surges of evidence that have led American officials, legal scholars, and human rights advocates to agree that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs amounts to genocide, Trudeau has previously spoken out against the motion by saying that genocide is a “loaded word” that should be used carefully. But underneath this supposed basis for contestation is the fear that has deterred nearly every other country from accepting the genocide label: the way such a label would impact the country’s relationship with China. 

Adrian Zenz, a researcher and expert on China’s minorities, told Global News that “A genocide determination on the side of the Canadian government would obviously spark a significant diplomatic clash between China and Canada simply because genocide is the worst crime a somebody can commit to an ethnic group,” adding that passing the motion would send a message that would be considered “a huge affront.” Experts have also noted how Canada’s pre-existing tensions with China may also stand as a factor explaining why Trudeau has shied away from the genocide label, namely surrounding the December 2018 arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S. government and the arbitrary detentions of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. 

Thus, while Trudeau’s actions to abstain from voting in Monday’s motion may effectively turn a blind eye to what experts believe constitutes a clear genocide, this was a decision that was likely made through a conscious and deliberate process of weighing the consequences involved with the dilemma facing his government. Unfortunately, he remains committed to the path that rejects the moral and domestic public policy impetus in favor of maintaining cordial ties with China. On account of experts suggesting this motion will irreversibly damage Canada’s relationship with China regardless of Trudeau’s support for or against recognition, it seems like the more rational course of action would be the one that supports the genocide label. This could potentially spark an international trend of state-leaders following suite and in turn lessen the severity of the consequences that would be assumed through adopting such a position.