China pressures Canada in Huawei affair

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

The recent detainment of 13 Canadian citizens in China has sparked a need to examine the country and Canada’s adherence to human rights laws throughout heated trade talks.

Huawei, a massive Chinese telecommunications company, has already established its place in the Canadian market through the sale of consumer goods. The multinational now seeks to secure its economic future in the Canadian market by providing equipment for Canada’s planned 5G network. While Bell sought a partnership in this 5G expansion, others questioned if Huawei would adhere to Canadian law. The U.S., New Zealand, and Australia have banned Huawei from the central core of their networks, and the UK is reviewing this issue.

With the stage shakily set for Huawei to increase its share in the Canadian telecommunications market, Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder and a current Huawei executive, was detained in Vancouver due to demands from the U.S. to extradite her for violating American sanctions on Iran. Article 2 of the U.S.-Canada bilateral treaty allows this handover; however, Wanzhou has fought her extradition to the U.S. from her Vancouver residence after posting bail.

The Canadian government has repeatedly said that the detention of Meng and of Canadian citizens in China are unrelated. One of the detainees who has since been released was Sarah McIver, a teacher who was taken into custody for working illegally in China. Additionally, eight detainees have been released since the first two Canadians—who remain in custody—were arrested in December.

However, media outlets have hinted at a connection between Meng’s detainment and the ensuing detention of 13 Canadian citizens in China. These two incidents can also be seen as China’s way of retaliating against Canada for detaining Meng. The two men who remain detained, Michael Kovrig (a former Canadian diplomat) and Michael Spavor (an entrepreneur), were arrested for allegedly “endangering China’s security.” China’s National Security Law is a broad and all-encompassing constitution with significant room for interpretation and can serve as justification for detainment in cases that do not seem clear-cut.

Canada’s human rights policy derives from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), with the foundation of the Canadian Human Rights Act being equality and anti-discrimination. Section 10 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifies that those arrested have the right to consult legal counsel. Unlike in China, press freedom in Canada enables journalists to draw attention to injustice, reminding the public of prisoners’ rights.

Human rights in China are also based on the UDHR, and the United Nations has regularly monitored human rights in the country. Because taking anyone into custody requires legal basis, China cited the National Security law, albeit “arbitrary,” to justify detaining the Canadians. However, these legal grounds do not excuse China’s violation of human rights.

While Meng currently lives in a luxury home in Canada with access to lawyers and social media, Kovrig and Spavor have been denied access to lawyers in China. Although there is limited information about the detainees’ living conditions, a source of The Star Vancouver claimed that Kovrig must remain in a room with the lights continuously on and is only allowed one consular visit per month. China’s treatment of the detainees is a clear violation of the international norms for consular rights, which state that consular access is a right of detainees when prosecution is at stake.

Canada’s emphasis on human rights and China’s negligence mark a stark difference between the two countries. Given the circumstances, the decision to hold these Canadian citizens in custody can be interpreted as an attempt to gain leverage when settling economic disputes with the U.S.