Canadian Parliament recently took a stand on a human rights issue as courageous as Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney’s opposition to South African apartheid in the 1980s and Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools in 2008.
On Feb. 22, by a vote of 266 to zero, the House of Commons voted to recognize China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities as genocide. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other key Liberals abstained, members of all parties – from Conservatives to Greens – voted in favour of the bill.
The only other country before Canada to call China’s crimes against humanity genocide is the United States, though that was done as Donald Trump was leaving office. It’s not clear whether President Joe Biden will be as supportive.
Clearly, Canada has put itself out on a limb, criticizing the actions of a major trading partner, a significant world power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
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As well, Canadian and Chinese diplomats are still negotiating the release of Canadian citizens held in Chinese jails. Relations have been tender between the two countries since the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018.
Some have argued that Canada has gone too far and that using the word genocide trivializes the term.
There’s significant evidence that what’s happening to Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China is indeed genocide. When scholar Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term, petitioned the United Nations to recognize the crime of genocide, he wanted the definition to go much further.
Many crimes against humanity are indeed genocide but the international community fails to use the word because it would require them to act against powerful nations to protect the rights of innocent people.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:
- killing members of the group;
- causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
We should never fear doing the right thing. Yes, there will be consequences and repercussions from China. It’s unlikely, however, that Canada will stand alone in declaring these crimes a genocide. The Dutch, for example, have already followed Canada’s lead. We’ve done what middle-power countries should do: begin the process and establish a precedent so other global players can join the initiative.
The challenge is to give meaning to the bill passed on Feb. 22. Will Trudeau downplay its significance in an effort to appease China, or will he have the courage to risk offending powerful allies as Clark and Mulroney did when taking a stand against apartheid?
This is a significant moment in world history. In 1994, the world refused to call the murder of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda genocide because it would require us to intervene. In its aftermath, we claimed we had learned our lesson.
However, there have been numerous genocides since 1994 and we stood by.
But maybe, just maybe, we have changed and are willing to risk doing the right thing this time.
Time will tell if this is a meaningless bill or if we’ve shifted the course of human history. This is Canada’s opportunity to change the world.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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