Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet will abstain from voting on a Conservative motion that would label Chinese human rights abuses targeting Muslims in the western Xinjiang region as genocide.
The motion, which is expected to come to a vote today following question period, has the support of all the opposition parties.
Government sources tell CBC News that Liberal cabinet ministers will abstain from voting. The sources also said the government will allow backbench MPs a free vote on the issue — meaning they won’t be expected to vote in concert for or against.
The motion would have Parliament officially declare China’s actions against Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims a genocide in accordance with the definition set out in the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention.
Media reports and academic and UN experts have accused China of imprisoning Uighurs in concentration and “deradicalization” camps and of targeting them with forced labour, sexual violence, population control methods and sweeping surveillance. China’s foreign ministry has denied the accusations.
The sources say the cabinet wants to pursue the issue through a multilateral approach by working with international allies such as the G7. Trudeau raised the issue during a meeting of that group last week.
Some Liberal MPs, including Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Anthony Housefather, have said they plan to vote in favour of the motion.
‘A time for moral clarity’
At a press conference this morning, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the evidence of China’s crimes is overwhelming. He cited survivor testimony, satellite images, video, documents and media reports from major U.S. and international news outlets.
“Today is a time for moral clarity,” said Chong. “We can no longer ignore this. We must call it for what it is — a genocide.”
Chong and Conservative human rights critic Garnett Genuis were joined at the event by a Uighur woman who said she was assigned to teach Chinese at a mass detention facility and a women’s prison in the city of Ürümqi from March to November 2017.
WATCH | Conservatives call on all MPs to support Uighur genocide motion:
Through a translator, Kalbinur Tursun said that during that time in the job, she saw or heard of multiple acts of intimidation, violence and rape directed against Uighur people.
“No one should be subjected to such cruelty,” she said.
Tursun said she was forcibly sterilized in 2019 through a surgical procedure, along with hundreds of other Uighur women.
Tursun said some of her relatives are still in Chinese prisons and that Chinese authorities have targeted her for harassment and intimidation to punish her for speaking out.
Chong and Genuis said they want their Liberal colleagues to vote in favour of the motion so lawmakers can show a united front on a fundamental question of human rights and send a strong message to China.
“When it comes to international human rights, we’ve become sadly used to hearing the phrase ‘It’s complicated’ to justify not doing what is clearly the right thing,” Genuis said. “But what we see before our eyes is not complicated.”
The Conservative motion would not be binding on the government.
While it doesn’t lay out any specific actions the government should take going forward, it does call on Canada to act in concert with the U.S. and other allies in recognizing acts of genocide.
Chong said the genocide label could lay the foundation for stronger actions against companies that import products produced in Xinjiang region using forced labour.
He also said Ottawa should slap Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese officials accused of perpetrating the genocide.
MPs also will vote on an amendment proposed by Bloc MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe which asks the government to lobby the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympic Games out of Beijing if the Chinese government doesn’t change course.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul have both made that demand in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers have been reluctant to use the word “genocide” to describe China’s actions against the Uighurs. Last week, Trudeau said the word genocide is an “extremely loaded” term and he is not prepared to use it at this point.
Canada wants independent investigation
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau followed up by saying the government doesn’t want to go it alone in declaring the actions a genocide, and prefers instead to work with international partners to gather facts on the ground.
He said Canada wants independent investigators to go into China to document abuses. The International Criminal Court has said already it will not pursue such a probe.
In an interview with the Canadian Press on Saturday, Cong Peiwu, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, repeated his government’s claim that the Uighurs are not being mistreated and described the genocide accusations as unfounded acts of China-bashing. He denounced the pending vote as interference in China’s internal affairs.
While Trudeau and his cabinet appear unready to accuse Chinese leaders of carrying out a genocide, backbench Liberal MPs helped to write a recent report from the Commons subcommittee on international human rights that documented the mistreatment of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province.
The committee, chaired by Liberal MP Peter Fonseca, said that it agrees with the experts who say China’s campaign against the Uighurs meets the definition of genocide set out by the UN.
Watch: Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says he plans to support the Uighur genocide motion:
A genocide declaration would bring Canada in line with the U.S. ahead of a virtual bilateral meeting between Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden scheduled for Tuesday.
In January, former U.S. secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration had determined that China had committed “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang region.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has continued the former administration’s policy of describing China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide.
“My judgment remains that genocide was committed … against the Uighurs and that hasn’t changed,” Blinken said late last month.